Stephen Hunter: The case of Tamir Rice

We first got to know Stephen Hunter when he was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post movie critic. He is best known as a successful novelist, and he happens to know a great deal about guns. I, Ripper is his new novel. Published last month, it is in bookstores now.

Here he offers his reflections on the case of Tamir Rice on the occasion of a Cleveland judge sounding off on the fate of the cop involved, as covered by NBC News. Submitted for your consideration:

We all know that the police are waging war on young black men. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the November shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland while he was holding a toy gun. A white officer emerged from his car and in less than five seconds fired lethal rounds into the innocent youngster holding–oh, wait, it was a pellet gun.

Hmmm. Seems to be some confusion here. Was it a toy gun or a pellet gun, which are quite different? Well, one place you won’t find the truth is NBC News, which tonight identified the pistol as BOTH a toy and a pellet gun, the first by anchorman Lester Holt, the second by a field correspondent. Of course both were wrong.

It was a Japanese airsoft gun., which fires (on the propulsion of either spring or gas) a 6 mm BB. But the point of airsoft isn’t what it shoots, but what it looks like. These are brilliantly accurate plastic reproductions of real guns. They are accurate to size, color, precise location and scale of operating mechanisms such as safeties or take-down levers, sights, stocks (frequently wood) and even operation. On the automatic versions the slide may be jacked backwards as on the real things, a magazine may be inserted into the butt and, when fired, the gas pneumatically drives the slide back, as if to eject a shell and allow another shell into the chamber. On the revolver variations, the cylnders rotate and may be disengaged from the frame to allow insertion of extremely authentic appearing cartridges into the six chambers. They cock and function, in all interactions, just like the real thing.

They are, in fact, so realistic that police and commando units train with them. They are so realistic that millions of private gun owners have bought them for their own training. In fact, they are so realistic they are by law required to wear orange non-lethal rings at muzzle to proclaim their status as non-guns to onlookers. They are so realistic that a whole global culture has grown up around them, offering ancillary equipment, uniforms, and battle-games up to platoon strength. It’s a way for mostly young men to get their war on without the inconvenience of joining the Marine Corps.

Of course, no one in media knows any of this, because nobody in media covers or pays attention to such things. They are too busy worrying about Marco Rubio’s traffic record.

And it was just such a gun that Tamir Rice was waving, though only a tiny fraction of the coverage has admitted as much, and, furthermore, the orange non-lethal ring had been covered up with black tape.

Thus to the police officer, that was no “toy.” It was not a “pellet gun.” It was a 1911A1 .45 automatic of the sort that rode in American holsters in battle zones from 1911 to 1984, when it was replaced by the Beretta. (You can get a Beretta Airsoft if you care to.)

So no matter what the narrative insists, this is what happened that night in Cleveland.

The officer responds to a call of a man with a gun. As might be expected, the threat of a gun puts his nervous system into some sort of adrenaline-loaded zone. Among the physiological reactions is tunnel vision. When he gets out of his car to face the suspect, he does not in all likelihood even look at him. That is human biology, not a training issue. That is the way the brain works: you concentrate on the threat.

Looking only at the pistol in the bad light, he identifies it as authentic, which escalates his emotional state. He is now, as all indications have informed him, facing a man armed with a deadly weapon. He yells, to no effect (we now know that Tamir Rice was learning-challenged; the officer could not have known that then) but when the gun does not go down and perhaps even its muzzle drifts toward him or his partner, the officer has no choice but to fire.

It is a tragedy what happened to Tamir Rice. And it is a crime: whoever taped the orange muzzle of that Airsoft pistol is a killer. But the police officer merely did his duty.

And that’s the narrative that the media should be telling.