A Hero Lies in Each of Us

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I own guns.  I will probably always own guns.  But I just can’t wrap my head around a teenager, just days before graduation, being lauded as a hero because his school, the STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado, was under attack by another teenager . . . with a gun.  Kendrick Castillo‘s heroism saved many lives.  Unfortunately, the 18-year-old had to die for the world to know of his heroism.  What’s worse is that Castillo’s death is not uncommon.  Riley Howell, a 21-year-old University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) student, is another student being honored as a hero.  His death, one week before Castillo’s, is the results of a shooting at UNCC that left two dead and four injured.  Do these young people have to die for us to see the content of their character?

Each time there’s a shooting, the actions of young people like Riley Howell and Kendrick Castillo make me revisit my own feelings about engaging active shooters.  I can’t ignore the feeling that we have normalized school shootings.  That makes America a sad place – and we seem to ignore the obvious.

I carried a concealed weapon for 25 years.  After I retired, I did what most federal agents do after retiring.  I applied for permission to carry a concealed weapon under the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA).  LEOSA allows qualified retired federal agents to carry a concealed firearm in any jurisdiction in the United States without regard to state and/or local laws, with few exceptions.  As a courtesy, a firearms range officer with a local sheriff’s office allows retirees to attend qualification training at no charge so we can get a state permit card.

I adapted to retirement very quickly.  I got to keep my concealed weapon, train for free and not change my standard of living.  Date night at the movies turned into movies at mid-day.  Family and friends envied but teased my wife and me profusely.  They said we were too young to retire.  Wanted to know how we would fill our days.  But isn’t that what it’s all about – retire young enough to enjoy the fruits of your labors?  Before long, my standard attire was shorts and a t-shirt.  Needless to say, I no longer carried a concealed firearm.

On July 23, 2015, we were at a Warehouse District restaurant in New Orleans when the calls began.  Friends and family were calling, one after the other, to check on us.  They knew we went to the movies very often.  Unlike us, everyone was aware of the active shooter in the movie theatre in our hometown.  The gunman and three people died.  Several others were injured.  Everyone wanted to make sure we were okay.  When the calls stopped, we went online and found what everyone else had seen in breaking news reports.

The week before the shooting, my wife and I were in that very theatre watching the same movie where the shooting took place.  For months after the shooting we didn’t go to the movies.  Soon after the shooting we added a home theatre to our home.  I reverted back to my old habits as a federal agent.  I watched everything and everyone around me.  I considered carrying a concealed firearm again.

It wasn’t until I began to pay close attention to the active shooter training that I realized what a fool I had become.  Like I said, I own guns.  I will probably always own guns.  One other thing . . . I’m African American.  I will always be African American and that is a game-changer.  For years my goal was to go home at the end of the day.  Active shooter training has the potential to compromise that goal for a retired African American federal agent with a concealed firearm.  I began to think about what it would mean to be the hero – the good guy with a gun that stopped a bad guy with a gun.  Here’s what it means.

AMERICA’S RESPONSE TO ACTIVE SHOOTERS

Active shooter training dictates that every officer responding to an active shooter scene engages and eliminates the shooter.  I began to ask myself what I would do if I were armed and in a room with an active shooter.  Would I be a hero?  Would I be a hero because I died?  I believe, with certainty that I would die.  It’s a simple conclusion.  I’m in the room and I’m armed.  I’m the first to see the origin of the first shot.  I engage and eliminate the threat.  Someone else in the room either open carries or has a concealed weapon.  Maybe there’s a security officer (often an off duty law enforcement officer) on site.   One or more of those people see me fire a shot that kills someone.  Who is the active shooter?

Let’s face it; unarmed African American men are seen as a threat to nearly everyone in America – and frequently die because of it.  Can you imagine the threat if an armed African American is seen shooting a white man or white teenager to death (statistics will show that the majority of active shooters are most likely white males).  The prospect forced reconsideration of carrying a concealed weapon.  First, if I’m armed, my training would automatically kick in and I would engage.  Second, I have no clue who the other armed people are so they become threats as well.  Everyone loses in that situation.

America’s go-to answer is “a good guy with a gun is the best defense against a bad guy with a gun”.  Really? That means teachers, professors, coaches, principles, and ministers are the good guys.  To some, my belief that the “good guy” approach is ridiculous makes me a coward.  I’m okay with that.  I will never believe that arming teachers, ministers or other non-law enforcement professionals addresses the problem we face.  It is too difficult to foster accountability in a profession that, traditionally, hasn’t had a firearm as one of the basic tools of the profession. 

We need not look any further than the excessive use of force problems that plague law enforcement offices all across America.  Those professionals have firearms as a standard tool of the profession.  Rigorous training with firearms is a critical element of the profession.  Yet we read, almost as often as mass shootings, about inappropriate or unnecessary use of firearms by law enforcement officers.

I revisit these thoughts every time another American must die to be thought of as a hero.  I’d like us all to be heroes and rethink our position about guns.  How many more must die?  We have to do better.  I’m not sure I have the answer but we should all try to find one.  I just don’t believe that arming more people with limited training that “we think” are good guys is the best answer. We must not let fear of losing our guns be the headwind that holds us back.  It is the responsibility of each of us, not just our elected officials, to act responsibly and implement reasonable reform and control that can be the tailwind that pushes us forward.

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