Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Influenced By What We Learn After The Fact

Spokane has had a couple of gun-related incidents that have me wondering if our reaction to them relies on viewing them through the prism of the outcome. For example, last March Gail Gerlach left his SUV unoccupied with the engine running in his driveway. When he came outside he saw his vehicle being driven away. He thought he saw the thief, Brendan Kaluza-Graham, point a weapon at him. He fired one shot through the dark, tinted rear window and killed Kaluza-Graham. Kaluza-Graham had a lengthy criminal record, which included car theft. He was not armed.

Between the book ends of "He got what he deserved" and "You can't kill someone who poses no danger to yourself", there is, written in a footnote in the back of your mind, a strangely comforting annotation, "Well, he was bad guy." It's there even if you believe Gerlach was wrong.

Let's change the situation a little. Let's say a neighbor had chided Gerlach several times about leaving his vehicle running unattended in the driveway and warned him it would be easy for someone to steal. And let's say that on this particular morning the neighbor decided to play a joke on Gerlach and teach him a lesson and drive off in the car, go around the block, and bring it back with a, "See, I told you someone could take this." As he drives away he sees Gerlach coming out of the house and he waves at him. And Gerlach, thinking the thief was pointing a weapon at him, shoots his neighbor through the dark, tinted rear window and kills him.

Under that set of facts would you have the same opinion? The facts are the same. Someone stole the vehicle. They were driving away. Gerlach thought the person pointed a weapon at him and shot him. Whether you think he was right or wrong, what would that footnote be replaced with? How do you reconcile this within your mind?

Why does it matter that we later learn that the thief had a criminal record or was a neighbor pulling a prank? Gerlach had no way of knowing either way and yet it has such a strong influence of what we think of his actions.

I have the same question for a recent incident that took place at the Gonzaga University-owned apartments that are off campus. Erik Fagan answered the door to find an apparently homeless man demanding money. Erik offered a can of food and a blanket instead of cash. The man allegedly became agitated and combative and showed what appeared to be an ankle bracelet saying, "You don't want to do this." The man advances into the doorway and Fagan calls for his roommate, Dan McIntosh. Dan comes downstairs with his handgun and points it at the man who then runs away. (Disclosure: I know Dan. He was a class mate of my son, Josh.) They report the incident to the police who arrest John Taylor, a six-time felon, not far away. The university police return later in the night to confiscate the weapons in the apartment--Fagan owns a shotgun that was not involved in the incident--because the two students are in violation of the Student Policy, which states that weapons are not allowed in university-owned buildings. They find themselves in danger of being expelled.

There's a huge public outcry against the university and the students are found guilty of violating the student policy but are placed on probation instead of expelled.

Whether Fagan and McIntosh were aware of it or not, the policy is quite clear and they were definitely guilty of violating that policy. But since you know they defended themselves against an intruder in what they perceive to be a bad part of town, it seems more acceptable, doesn't it?

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