The release of the video capturing Philando Castile’s death at the hands of police officer Jeronimo Yanez has confirmed what many on the Left and Right have stated about the incident from the start: the killing cannot be justified.
After Castile was pulled over, he carefully announced to Yanez that he was legally carrying a weapon, and was only reaching into his jacket pocket for his drivers’ license. Yanez told Castile not to pull out his gun. Castile confirmed he was not going to do so, then continued reaching into his jacket pocket as he had been instructed. Yanez warned him again, shouting this time, then opened fire.
We will never know for certain what was going through Yanez’s mind as he pulled the trigger, but the information we have indicates that his fear, real though it may have been, was not reasonable, and unreasonable fear can never justify the use of force.
Philando Castile Did Everything He Should Have
Reason compels us to acknowledge that it was unlikely that Castile, a school cafeteria worker who had no history with Yanez, had it out for him from the start. A man with nefarious intentions toward Yanez would also be unlikely to state openly that he was carrying a gun, as Castile did.
It is far more likely that Castile was doing exactly what concealed carriers are instructed to do in his situation: he let Yanez know he was carrying a weapon for the express purpose of avoiding escalating tension. Yanez, after all, would have been taken aback if he saw the weapon without knowing it would be there, and Castile assuring him that he was reaching for his wallet, not his gun, would keep Yanez from deciding he had to shoot to protect himself.
Even the measured wording of Castile’s statement—“Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me”—suggests a conscientious attempt to clarify what is happening far more than it does a threat. Contra Yanez’s peculiar contention, marijuana odor does nothing to change this calculus. Merely stating that one has a weapon, even to a police officer, in the absence of any real indicator of danger, is not a crime in a country that guarantees its citizens the right to bear arms.
Not only was Castile’s carrying a weapon and making Yanez aware of it not a crime, it was legally protected. The danger present in being a police officer—and I do not underestimate how real that danger is—does not trump the law or constitutional rights. Indeed, the opposite must be the case in a free society.
Police Power Is Not Unlimited
Police officers are empowered to act upon reasonable fear of imminent danger to protect themselves, with reasonable being the operative word. Fear itself is not sufficient, as it can be based on just about anything—including, yes, skin color. The fact that distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable fear is a heavy and difficult question is why it takes a noble person to be a good police officer.
Proper law enforcement requires both courage and wisdom to stare down danger and continue to uphold the law while doing so. Men placed in this position of power who do not have the ability to judge these situations well will harm innocent people, and when this happens those responsible must be held as accountable as anyone else.
Even if Yanez’s fear was real and not at all informed by prejudice, it was still not reasonable, and it still caused him to wrongly shoot a man who had committed no crime, for the simple fact that the man’s legal exercise of a constitutional right made him uncomfortable. For that he should be facing jail time. It is hard to fault those who demonstrate in protest. This sort of affair has been sparking outrage in this country since 1770, and I don’t think even John Adams in all his honor and skill would have found it in himself to defend Yanez in this instance.
Our Rights Are Meaningless If Not Protected
This is an event that conservatives and libertarians, if we are true to our principles, must speak on. Castile committed no crime. He was, by all accounts, a decent man whom his community loved. Indeed, he seems to have been exactly the sort of man that our Second Amendment exists to protect and empower—a “good guy with a gun.” And he was killed for it. He was killed simply because a police officer believed his lawful possession of a handgun to be too dangerous for his own liking.
If this standard goes unchallenged, and we establish the legal precedent that a civilian’s possession of a weapon makes him a threat that can be countered with the highest level of force, then it matters not what happens in our legislatures in the debate over gun rights. The right to bear arms will be meaningless, a mere sentiment that can be blown away by the state at any time its agents like.
The Second Amendment’s guarantee of a fundamental right to self-ownership and self-defense, including against a tyrannical state, is necessary. But if it does not protect citizens like Castile from having those rights violated, or hold accountable the agents of the state who violate those rights, then it means nothing and protects no one. The assault on Castile’s rights—to his life, his liberty, and yes, his right to bear arms—is an assault on all of us.