On Thanksgiving, yet another young black man with a gun, who seems to have been trying to help apprehend an active shooter, was mistakenly shot and killed by police, this time at a shopping mall in Alabama. Twenty-one-year-old E.J. Bradford Jr. died after being shot in the face by a uniformed officer. Coming in the wake of the death of another young black man with a gun who had just apprehended a suspect when he was mistakenly shot and killed by a police officer, Bradford’s death suggests one of the biggest limits of the conservative argument that “good guys with guns” are what’s needed to prevent gun violence: The police can’t always tell a good guy with a gun from a bad guy with a gun, and when the good guy with a gun is black, the police sometimes assume he’s a bad guy.
What happened to E.J. Bradford Jr.? Shortly before 10 p.m. last Thursday, gunshots were heard on the second floor of the Riverchase Galleria shopping mall. Officers from the Hoover Police Department rushed to the scene. It is not clear whether officers saw Bradford with a gun or whether they were just told that Bradford had a gun. Either way, thinking Bradford was the gunman, an officer shot and killed Bradford. Witnesses at the mall reported that the officer shot Bradford within seconds and did not give any verbal commands—no “Stop,” no “Drop your weapon,” no “Get on the ground”—to Bradford before shooting him.
After the shooting, Hoover’s police chief praised the police for stopping the gunman. “Thank God we had our officers very close” police Chief Nick Derzis told AL.com. “They heard the gunfire, they engaged the subject, and they took out the threat.”
It turns out Bradford was not the shooter police were looking for. The police department issued a statement Friday night, acknowledging their mistake: “New evidence now suggests that while Mr. Bradford may have been involved in some aspect of the altercation, he likely did not fire the rounds that injured the 18-year-old victim.”
The investigation is ongoing, but at least at this point it appears that Bradford’s only involvement in the altercation was that of a concerned citizen, trying to help the police apprehend the actual shooter or trying to help shoppers seeking safety from the gunman.
According to attorney Benjamin Crump, who has been hired by Bradford’s family to investigate what happened, Bradford had a license to carry a concealed firearm. He may have been the proverbial “good guy with a gun.” And he wasn’t the only one. Several shoppers were on the scene with their guns drawn, but Bradford was the only person shot by police. In many states, including Alabama, it is legal for people to carry guns. Officers in such states should be aware that an individual with a gun may be a law-abiding civilian. Therefore, if feasible, police officers should give a warning or verbal command to drop the weapon before shooting.
This case has larger implications about the politics around our nation’s gun laws. President Trump has suggested that the answer to gun violence is more guns. In response to the shooting in February that took the lives of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Trump suggested teachers who agree to carry guns on campus should get a bonus. In October, in response to the shooting that took the lives of 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Trump said, ”If there were an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop them. Maybe there would have been nobody killed except for [the shooter].”
As Bradford’s death illustrates, however, the answer to gun violence is not more guns, especially not if you are black. Decades of social science research have shown that people tend to associate black men with crime and violence. In one study, for example, participants who observed two men getting into an altercation that ended in a shove called the shove aggressive and violent when a black man shoved a white man but characterized the same shove as playing around when it was a white man who shoved a black man. Another study found that individuals who were first shown a black face and then a series of pictures with dots would identify crime-relevant objects, such as a gun, in the pictures more quickly than individuals who were first shown a white face and then the same series of pictures. Numerous studies on shooter bias have found that most people, including police officers, are quicker to “see” a weapon in the hands of a black person than in the hands of a white person. This is true even when the black person is actually unarmed.
As noted, Bradford’s death comes on the heels of the Nov. 11 death of Jemel Roberson, a security guard who, while trying to help police apprehend a suspect in a shooting at a bar outside Chicago, was shot and killed by a police officer who mistakenly thought Roberson was the shooter. Roberson was also black, and just before he was shot, he had the actual suspect on the ground and was pointing a gun at the suspect’s back.
Being a good guy with a gun did not save Bradford or Roberson. Indeed, having a gun seems to have been a major factor leading to their deaths. Officers learn in training that a person with a gun in hand can lift, point, and shoot at an officer or others before officers can react. Anyone who has a gun, officers learn, poses a potential threat unless and until that person is separated from the weapon.
Ultimately, it is difficult for an officer to know whether a person with a gun is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun. Bradford’s death is a reminder that more guns are not the answer to gun violence.
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