One wonders if, in retrospect, Curtis Reeves and Michael Dunn wish that they had left their guns at home when they went out on Jan. 13, 2014, and Nov. 23, 2012, respectively.
Reeves, 71, took his wife to the movies at a theater near Tampa, Fla. During the previews he confronted Chad Oulson, a 43-year-old sitting in front of him, for using his cell phone. The details are in dispute, but Oulson appears to have thrown popcorn at Reeves, who pulled a .380 semiautomatic pistol from his pocket and fatally shot Oulson in the chest.
Reeves is in jail, without bail, awaiting trial for second-degree murder.
Michael Dunn stopped at a convenience store in Jacksonville, Fla. While his girlfriend went inside, Dunn asked an SUV full of young guys parked next to him to turn their music down. Again, the details are in dispute, but heated words were exchanged.
Dunn says that he thought he saw the barrel of a shotgun, so he pulled a pistol from his glove compartment and fired 10 shots into the fleeing SUV. Three of the bullets hit Jordan Davis, 17, killing him.
Last week Dunn was found guilty of attempted murder, and he may be retried on the murder charge. Dunn, 47, faces 60 years in prison.
First, the obvious: neither of these events would have occurred if Reeves and Dunn hadn’t had deadly weapons readily available. Someone might have gotten a black eye or busted lip, but probably no one would have been killed or still be in jail.
But both Reeves and Dunn had a legal right to carry their weapons, and screenings and background checks are unlikely to have discovered personality traits or behaviors that might have prevented them from doing so.
In fact, they seem like more or less ordinary people. Dunn was a computer programmer and software developer who had just left a wedding reception for his son. Reeves retired as a captain in the Tampa Police Department in 1993.
Loud music is obnoxious and texting in movie theaters is annoying. But in a culture that equates noise with quality and that increasingly considers the right to text in all situations as near-constitutional, many of us have developed resistance to the impulse to call out irresponsible fellow citizens, especially when an opportunity to defuse the situation —moving to a different parking space or theater seat — is available.
But despite the powerful gun lobby’s emphasis on gun ownership for personal protection, Reeves’ and Dunn’s actions raise a question: Did easy access to a gun have the ironic effect of inspiring more aggression and less willingness to back off than were prudent?
The question is increasingly poignant as more citizens are encouraged to carry concealed weapons because they believe that others are carrying them, and as states make laws that permit and promote concealed carry and, increasingly, open carry.
In fact, this month in Texas the leading Republican and Democratic candidates for governor both came out in favor of permitting concealed carry license holders to carry their weapons openly, just like in the Old West of the movies.
National Rifle Association-types imagine that open carry will usher in the Peaceable Kingdom, where the lion and the lamb lie down together calmly because the lamb is patently well armed.
But once citizens begin publicly displaying in holsters their fears, insecurities, paranoia, aggression and inclinations to intimidate, I suspect we’ll see more confrontations like Reeves’ and Dunn’s, quarrels that should evaporate in retreat, harsh words, or fistfights but, instead, turn into gunplay.
In fact, before we turn our country into the Old West, let’s note that the central, indispensable icon of all Western movies is the gunfight. We should probably be prepared for more of them.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org