The killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice has become the latest in a string of police killings of unarmed black men and boys, and a focal point of activists and reporters in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Last week, the Cleveland Police Department released video of Rice's shooting by 26 year-old rookie Timothy Loehmann, says he told Rice twice to put up his hands, and that he fired when Tamir "reached" for what turned out to be a realistic-looking pellet gun. In a press conference following the shooting, Deputy Chief Edward Tomba said that Rice made no "verbal threats," and there was no "physical confrontation."
A caller to 911 told the police operator that Rice was pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it a people, but also said the gun was "probably fake," and that Rice was "probably a juvenile," although it appears the dispatcher did not pass this information on to the officers. In dispatch audio released by police, the officers call in the shooting, and identify Tamir as a "black male, maybe 20" years old.
All of this has led people like Moms Demand Action's Shannon Watts to ask why Rice was shot when it is legal to openly carry firearms, including handguns, in Cleveland. It has also led blogs like Wonkette to wonder why the usually-vocal open carry movement hasn't been loudly proclaiming the injustice in this case. In a press conference following the shooting, Deputy Chief Edward Tomba said that Rice made no "verbal threats," and there was no "physical confrontation." If the police really believed that Tamir Rice was 20 years old, and the pellet gun was really in plain view, then the open carry law would seem to complicate their justification for killing him.
The officers are fairly locked into their story, and in an ironic twist, Loehmann's own father might turn out to be a poor witness for his son. He told a reporter in Cleveland that his son joined the Cleveland force because "he loved the action," and recounted a story of his own career as a police officer in New York:
While on patrol in Harlem in 1972, he came upon a man suspected in an armed robbery. The man turned around, extended his arm and silver flashed from his palm. Fred Loehmann cocked his service weapon, but held his fire.
"I just felt like he wasn't going to shoot me," Loehmann said. "If it would have been a real gun, I'd be dead."
The gun turned out to be a Derringer cigarette lighter, fashioned to look like a handgun.
Of course, open carry laws didn't make a difference in the killing of John Crawford, who was shot by police at a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart for carrying a pellet gun that he got off of the store's shelf, and who was apparently shot while laying the weapon down. Despite the utter legality of Crawford's actions, even and especially under the belief that the pellet gun was real, the grand jury in his killing failed to indict.
Another common thread between these two tragic killings, both captured on surveillance video, and both featuring hair-trigger kills, is the behavior of the victims before the police arrived. In the Walmart video, Crawford spends a good eight minutes walking around the store, casually carrying the pellet gun as he talks on the phone, like it's the most natural thing in the world. In Ohio, in this Walmart, it should be as natural as toting around a Duck Dynasty fleece blanket.
In the seven-minute surveillance video released by the Cleveland Police, you can see Rice playing with what turned out to be a pellet gun in the foreground, even casually twirling it several times. Again, like it's the most natural thing in the world. Six minutes later, the police show up, and almost instantly, Rice is shot twice, mortally wounded:
It's fair to assume that both Crawford and Rice were aware of their state's open carry laws because, as open carry activists are constantly reminding everyone, they would become more used to seeing firearms, and consequently less afraid, not just of the guns themselves, but of being seen carrying something that looked like a real gun. When I first saw the Tamir Rice video, I thought it was strange how carefree he seemed, because I assumed that Ohio's open carry laws excluded handguns, as many states do, and that a city like Cleveland would have tougher gun laws, like many big cities do.
As it turns out, Cleveland did have tougher gun laws, including an open carry ban, until the Republican legislature passed a state law invalidating them, overriding the veto of a Republican governor. The law was strongly supported by the NRA (of course), and was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2010:
In the 5-2 decision, the Republican-dominated court said a 2006 state law does not violate Ohio's home rule provision that gives local authorities the ability to enact measures in the interest of their citizens. A key question in the case was whether the statewide gun law is considered a "general law"-- which under the home rule provision would override local ordinances.
...Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said the ruling will put urban populations like Cleveland's at greater risk for gun violence.
"Even though we've made progress in Cleveland, gun violence is a very real threat that we face, particularly our young people," Jackson said in a statement. "Our inability to enforce laws that are right for our city flies in the face of home rule and takes power away the people at the local level."
Unfortunately, there's no way to know for sure if Cleveland's gun laws were a factor in Tamir Rice's decision to play with that pellet gun. If only we could ask him.