The Lesson of Stephon Clark and the March for Our Lives: Too Many Guns

Was it unreasonable for police to think he had a gun, in a country full of them?


Bob Strong/Reuters

Stephon Clark shouldn’t be dead. He should be alive, hanging out with his family in Sacramento and continuing to live his life. Instead, he is another in a long list of unarmed black men who have been killed by police.

While the story of Clark’s death is as complex as many others, there is one very simple reason why he isn’t alive today: police thought he had a gun.

Even though the officers who killed Clark were tragically, horrifically wrong in thinking he was holding a gun and not a phone, they weren’t unreasonable in thinking he was armed. Not because he was black or because of the neighborhood he was in, but because, between one-third and half of Americans have a gun. (Those are the people who report it. There is no federal law requiring gun owners to register their weapons, so the actual number of gun ownership is unknown.)

We lead the world in gun ownership and gun deaths, and police are on the front lines of encounters with armed Americans each day.

Stephon Clark shouldn’t be dead, but his death can be at least partly blamed on the gun-heavy reality of day-to-day police work—and American life. That reality includes armed Americans walking around looking exactly like unarmed Americans. There are no bright orange vests that read, I have a gun.

Put yourselves in the shoes of officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, for a moment. Forget the headlines and the data—about 1,000 Americans killed each year by police; more than 10,000 killed each year by a fellow citizen with a gun—and put yourselves in a dark backyard chasing after a suspect breaking into people’s homes and cars.

Do you know what’s in that backyard? Probably not. But you know you’ve got to catch the suspect and you know you don’t want to die. You’re not thinking about the relatively small number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty each year—less than 200 in 2017. You’re not thinking about that because you’re not a data point. You’re a human being—just like Stephon Clark—who wants to live a long and happy life and make it home to your family at the end of each day.

Right-wing media and blindly pro-law enforcement types who happily make arguments based on the police perspective are usually unwilling to do the same from Clark’s point of view. Instead they expect perfection from him and everyone else who encounters police: Clark should have immediately put his hands up, stopped running, dropped to his knees and let police know not only that he was surrendering but that he didn’t have a gun.

Those on the left who are unwilling to view things from the police perspective expect similar perfection from law enforcement: the officers should have let Clark continue walking towards them as helicopter video shows—again, thinking they saw a gun in his hand.

There are endless points to debate for every police shooting and police-involved death, and each needs to be examined on its own. I should know, because for two years I covered many of them. Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Sylville Smith, and Keith Lamont Scott, to name a few. (That’s not to mention the ones that didn’t make cable news chyrons: Warren Robinson and Ronald Johnson in Chicago, Phillip White in Vineland, New Jersey, Justus Howell in Zion, Illinois and Darius Robinson in Anadarko, Oklahoma.)

Last week began with Clark’s death, and it ended with nationwide marches calling for gun control. Those marches came about after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where Nikolas Cruz used his gun to murder those without guns; after Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, where men with guns did the same; after 100 homicides so far this year in Chicago and thousands of other murders across the country, most of them committed with guns.

Without guns, there’d be a lot more Americans walking around today. And without guns—and the entirely reasonable fear that quite a few of us might have one—Stephon Clark would almost certainly not have have been killed.

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In fact, guns were reliably one of the leading causes of death for all Americans, until a few years ago when opioid overdoses overtook them.

We have guns to protect ourselves from other people who might have guns, who in turn have guns because they might need to protect themselves from all of us who also have guns.

We have guns to protect ourselves from other people who might have guns, who in turn have guns because they might need to protect themselves from all of us who also have guns. Most of the time we never use them and live our lives knowing that they’re there if we should, God forbid, need them. Police, on the other hand, live each day dealing with people who might just use them, people at their most desperate, angry, tired, lowest, or neediest. When was the last time you called the police when everything was going well?

Never, probably. But you might have called them at some point in your life after hearing gunshots, or after witnessing someone being shot. In January, Sacramentans called the police four times for four separate homicides—at least three done with a gun—and once when a group of armed men barged into a woman’s garage.

We are a gun country, and the young adults from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School understand this. That’s why they didn’t make this past weekend’s marches about school safety, or mental health treatment, they made them about guns. And that’s why their fellow young people in Chicago made their march about guns as well: guns, statistically speaking, are one of the biggest killers of people there.

Guns fuel a cycle of fear—buying guns to protect ourselves from other people with guns; police shooting people because they have or think they might have guns—that seems to never end.