Politics & Policy

Moms Demand SWATting

Colorado Ceasefire gun-control rally in Denver, April 2013. (File photo)
A disturbing trend on the fringes of the gun-control movement

‘You see a GunFilth waving its penis substitute, exit, call police. Armed robbery in progress.” So wrote Twitter user “Little Black Dog” on September 13 of this year.

The injunction was a particularly colorful one, but the idea behind it, alas, is not as uncommon as one might wish. “I see you #opencarry with a gun in public,” a man named “joe villa” threatened earlier this week, “i’m calling the cops. psycho behaving erratic. make your day.” A translation for the more literate among us: “The law be damned; exercise your rights under the law and I’ll threaten your life.”

“Take a look through the comments threads on Moms Demand Action’s Facebook page,” Bearing Arms’s Bob Owens tells me, “and you’ll see a lot of this.” “Not,” he clarifies,

from the leaders of the group. But it is a mindset popular among the followers. On there, on the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — ironically — and on GunFreeZone.net, you’ll notice commenters advocating that people call the police and exaggerate what is going on, hoping to get the cops to come in.

A cursory trawl through those sites reveals that Owens is correct in his assessment. The lion’s share of the commenters are innocuous and cordial — nothing more than law-abiding Americans participating in civil society. There are peaceful promises not to shop at Target or Kroger or Chili’s unless those businesses explicitly prohibit customers from bringing their firearms in with them; there are vehement-but-idle suggestions that anybody who wishes to carry a gun in public must have something seriously wrong with him; and there are the usual ignorant claims that shootings in America are on the increase (in fact, the opposite is true). But, every 20 comments or so, one sees exactly what Owens describes. Reacting to a photograph of a man standing at a checkout with a handgun holstered upon his hip, mom-who-demands-action Joyce Ward asks, “Why weren’t the police called immediately?” And “why,” Ward continues, “wasn’t he shot by the police for having a weapon”? Fellow poster Lisa McLogan Shaheen has a similar inquiry, wondering, “Why hasn’t someone called 911 so the cops can gun him down?” Others go a little further, proposing that they might help their cause along if they were actively to bring about an altercation. “Every time I see someone with a gun in a store I will call 911,” Jennifer Decker vows, “they’ll get tired of that right quick!!!” Even that plan is too limited for Ann Marie. “Just call the police every time you see someone with one,” she counsels, “the police will get sick of it eventually or have a run in with one of these clowns and then things will change.”

In almost every such comment, it is also asserted regretfully that there is an ugly double-standard at play in America’s thriving gun culture. “If he were black,” one Wayne Senftner laments, “some frantic white woman would call 911 and the cops would murder him on sight like in ohios wallmart [sic] killing of the black man holding a toy air rifle.” Presumably, Senftner cannot see how peculiar this statement looks to outsiders, nestled as it is among the hysterical output of “frantic white women” who are recommending that others do just that. Naturally, one shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good whine. But what happened to Crawford should serve as a warning to the malcontents, not as an encouragement. The “black man holding a toy air rifle” to whom Senftner refers was named John Crawford III, and he was killed because, to borrow a phrase from Lisa McLogan Shaheen, a fellow shopper “called 911 so the cops could gun him down.” “If you sync the phone call to the footage,” Bob Owens tells me, “you’ll notice that Ronald Ritchie, the caller, makes claims that are not true.” Among those claims, the Guardian records, were that “Crawford was pointing the air rifle at customers,” that he threatened “two children,” and that he was recklessly “waving it around.” This does not appear to have been the case. Indeed, when the lattermost statement was made, Owens notes, “the gun’s muzzle was pointed to the ground.” So pronounced are the discrepancies between Ritchie’s story and the surveillance footage that John Crawford’s family is hoping to take legal action. “He’s basically lying with the dispatchers,” the family’s attorney, Michael Wright argues. “He’s making up the story. So should he be prosecuted? Yes, I believe so.”

Which is to say that, whether or not the allegedly well-intentioned reformers of Moms Demand Action and GunFreeZone.net are aware of it, they are flirting with disaster. On the surface, Ann Marie’s grubby little hope that police will eventually “have a run in with one of these clowns” may appear to be less threatening than was Ronald Ritchie’s fatal mendacity. But, if Marie were successful, the end result would likely be the same. There is no kind way of putting this, I’m afraid: Ultimately, what we are seeing on the fringes of the gun-control movement is the suggestion that American citizens be “SWATted” for their choices — that, in the name of a political disagreement, one party calls the cops on another and, under false pretenses, puts them in harm’s way. Is this reconcilable with “common sense” change?

“You’re putting the police in a situation where to the best of their knowledge the call is coming from inside the house,” Owens explains. “In the worst case, the perpetrator will say, ‘I’ve killed my wife and kids; come get me if you can.’” In other instances, he will exaggerate or twist the truth to lure authorities into a situation that is not at all as it has been described. In all cases, however, the intention is the same: To harm or to scare the target. Real-world examples abound. Sometimes, as in the cases of conservative activists Erick Erickson and Aaron Worthing, attacks have been contrived by those seeking political or legal revenge. At other times, they have been ordered purely as entertainment. (Earlier this year, a video-gamer who was streaming himself playing Counter Strike was SWATted by a jealous opponent. The incident, which was filmed, makes rough viewing: One moment, the player is enjoying his game; the next, he is being thrown to the ground by armed officers, their guns drawn.)

It is the high-profile cases that make the news — especially when the motive is explicitly political. But, for all the drama that the targeting of celebrities invites, it is difficult to imagine why an ostensibly distressed call from a grocery store would in practice have different consequences than a call reporting a reputed murder. If, as “Little Black Dog” and “joe villa” have proposed, a cop receives a complaint of an “armed robbery in progress” or an armed “psycho behaving erratic,” his response is likely to be severe. (Indeed, those who doubt that law enforcement treats every report with pronounced seriousness and an excess of caution might consider reading up on the typical response to proclaimed school shootings.)

The open-carry movement can at times be needlessly provocative, unforgivably impolite, and depressingly counter-productive. Mom’s Demand Action’s mawkish and narcissistic hoplophobia to one side, I share the concern of those who feel that some advocates of the right to bear arms have traded justifiable concern regarding the integrity of their rights for gratuitousness, confrontation, and vanity. Nevertheless, there are constructive and there are disastrous ways of establishing social and legal bright lines, and the proposals that are simmering around the gun-control movement’s fringes fall decidedly into the latter camp. Having been widely chastised for their stupidity, both “Little Black Dog” and “joe villa” removed their boorish warnings and slunk, chastened, back into their festering holes. Their friendlier allies at MDA and beyond would do well to follow suit, politely advising the hotheads that this really isn’t a game.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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