Every year it seems there are an excessive number of tragedies involving youth and firearms. Teenagers turning guns on their teachers and peers, children accidentally shooting themselves after finding an improperly stored gun, and more recently, a 13-year-old shot by a police officer who feared his life was in danger because he mistook the boy’s replica airsoft gun for an AK-47 assault rifle.
These tragedies are, in a word, senseless, and they haunt us because in almost every instance they were seemingly preventable. In our attempt to deal with the state of grief following loss, there’s an almost immediate desire to assign blame in hopes of bringing understanding and closure to the matter.
In the last week, hundreds of Santa Rosa citizens gathered to demand justice for the death of Andy Lopez, who was shot seven times and killed by Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus on Oct. 22. In their demands for justice, protesters have been quick to point fingers at Gelhaus and the police department.
They say he, as a weapons expert and police officer, should have the ability to discern between a replica or an actual AK-47 from 20 to 30 feet away. They assert the police will find some way to justify the killing, as if the possibility of concluding the shooting was an accident is tantamount to saying the deputy is not guilty.
Further, articles by the Huffington Post and NBC Bay Area already started to construct our understanding of Gelhaus by quoting passages from articles he wrote or posts he made on a forum about the use of firearms in police enforcement. It’s as if these oversimplified characterizations are enough of an explanation to understand the rationale behind Gelhaus’ actions.
Law enforcement experts argue Gelhaus’ actions were warranted because, in a snap judgment, police have to operate on the assumption that the gun was real. Comments made on various articles suggest Lopez’s parents are to blame for failing to teach the child the danger of walking around with a realistic airsoft gun. These arguments suggest it is feasible to make conclusive statements about a family based on an incident that unraveled in less than 15 seconds.
Condemning an individual or an organization will only provide us with a convenient scapegoat, enabling a shoddy discourse that will inevitably devolve into a binary argument about who or what is at fault. What’s worse is these conclusions are being drawn before details of the incident have been fully investigated.
The discourse over instances of gun violence needs to shift from looking for a person or a group to punish toward an examination of how our society makes these situations possible. We should be asking questions and not so quick to judge a situation on limited information.