Here’s an excerpt from a statement by the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, District Attorney’s office about the SWAT shooting of 68-Year-Old Eurie Stamps while he was lying on the floor:
As Officer Duncan moved to the right of Mr. Stamps, just past Mr. Stamps’ shoulders, he had to step to his left. As he stepped to his left, he lost his balance, and began to fall over backwards. Officer Duncan realized that his right foot was off the floor and that the tactical equipment that he was wearing was making his movements very awkward. While falling, Officer Duncan removed his left hand from his rifle, which was pointing down towards the ground, and put his left arm out to try and catch himself. As he did so, he heard a shot and then his body made impact with the wall. At that point, Officer Duncan, who was lying on the ground with his back against the wall, realized that he was practically on top of Mr. Stamps and that Mr. Stamps was bleeding. Officer Duncan immediately started yelling “man down, man down.” Numerous SWAT members began calling for medics and alerting team members that there was a person down that needed medical attention. Officer Duncan told another officer on scene within moments of the incident that he had stumbled and lost his balance while moving to get in a better position, and as he was falling, his gun fired.
Whenever I post something critical of a SWAT team, I always hear from someone who tells me that I don’t know anything about SWAT because I haven’t been there. They’re right that I don’t know much about SWAT, but I do know a thing or two about how guns work, and I’ve received training on safe gun handling.
In order to shoot Eurie Stamps, Officer Duncan had to break two rules of gun safety: (1) He had to have the gun pointed in an unsafe direction, and (2) he had to have had his finger on the trigger. I can understand how the gun got pointed in the wrong direction–Duncan stumbled and lost control of his rifle. That part is a plain and simple accident.
Further, it’s a natural human reaction to grab onto things when you fall, so I can understand how his fingers might have clamped onto the gun as he stumbled. But reflexive hand squeezes are a well-known problem in gun handling–people can also give an involuntary squeeze when startled by a loud noise or when they sneeze–which is the reason for the rule that you keep your finger off the trigger.
Now read those last three words of the excerpt again: “His gun fired.” That’s undoubtedly true has far as it goes, but contrary to the implication of the passive sentence structure, guns don’t just fire themselves. Officer Duncan pulled the trigger.
(There are a couple of other possibilities. Perhaps as the officer fell, his rifle got twisted around in his hand, although I can’t picture how this could happen in a way that puts his finger on the trigger at the same time his rifle is pointed at someone lying on the floor. Another possibility is the the trigger got caught on something in the environment. However, the DA’s statement mentions neither of these things.)
None of this makes Officer Duncan a murderer. It doesn’t even make him a bad person. It may not even mean he’s reckless with a firearm: Even people with excellent gun handling skills make mistakes. They forgetfully put their finger on the trigger, but they don’t pull it, so no harm done. Or maybe they have an accidental discharge, but the weapon wasn’t pointed at anyone, so no harm done. And every once in a while, someone with excellent safety skills just has their worst day ever, and they shoot an innocent person entirely by accident.
It’s not just possible for it to happen, it’s bound to happen. Accidental shootings are an inevitable consequence of having large numbers of people handling firearms. But not all gun handling situations are created equally. A confusing, high-stress, guns-ready situation like a SWAT raid is much more likely to result in an accidental shooting than the ordinary patrol activities of police officers.
So the question we should be asking ourselves is not just whether Officer Duncan was reckless in handling a gun, but also whether Officer Duncan and the other members of the SWAT team should have been there at all. Are the benefits of all these SWAT raids worth the inevitable deaths that will occur?
I don’t think so. I think it’s time to re-think how police departments handle drug-related warrants, and that should include serious consideration of eliminating drug raids altogether.