Bad Manners and Bullets

A debate, not entirely civil, has erupted on my Facebook page over a heart-wrenching incident in Florida. If you’re a regular reader of CNN online you already know about an argument in a movie theatre that left one man dead, his wife wounded, and a retired police officer in jail without bond for pulling the trigger on a man who had refused to stop texting during a movie.


According to published reports, Chad Oulson, 43, met up with his wife for a Monday lunch date and a matinee in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Previews were rolling when he began to send a text—to his three-year-old daughter’s babysitter.  Behind him was Curtis Reeves, 71, and his wife. Reeves apparently asked Oulson to stop—how he asked is not clear, but the encounter escalated into an argument and Reeves left to find a manager. When he returned, CNN reports:


The man who had been texting, Chad Oulson, got up and turned to Reeves to ask him if he had gone to tell on him for his texting. Oulson reportedly said, in effect: I was just sending a message to my young daughter. Voices were raised. Popcorn was thrown. And then came something unimaginable — except maybe in a movie. A gun shot.


Oulson died at the scene. The following day, Reeves was arraigned and denied bail. According to the Tampa Tribune, Judge Lynn Tepper found no basis to believe his claim that he was in fear of attack when he shot Oulson—a potential “stand-your-ground” defense under Florida law:


The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported, though, that while Reeves claimed Oulson struck him with an “unknown object,” no such object was found and witnesses did not observe any punches being thrown. Oulson did throw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.


The central question this tragedy has raised among my circle is the degree to which the victim contributed to the altercation—and to his own demise—by texting in the theatre and getting into an argument when asked to stop. To me, the bigger question is what this horrible incident says about the lies being peddled by the gun lobby, which pushes all guns, all the time—that an armed society is a polite society, that more guns means we are all safer, that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  This kind of escalation is not rare, but it seldom involves a respected former member of law enforcement.


I’ll address the etiquette question first, however, because among some theatre people I know, the use of cellphones during performances inspires an almost atomic level of rage—to the point that it almost becomes  a public safety issue in itself. This incident has inflamed some of those passions. Online I’ve seen cruel jokes about Chad Oulson’s death, and in recent discussions, I’ve been startled to discover how much anger has been reserved for the victim.


The argument I’ve heard goes like this: Both men were wrong. And even if Reeves’ reaction was over-the-top, that doesn’t make Oulson’s behavior right. My initial response to that statement was astonishment. And it was hard to offer reasoned reaction. But having thought about it, I have this to say:  “Wrong” is not a uniform concept when it comes to degree or gravity.  Yes, we can agree that texting during a show is wrong. We can agree that shooting a guy in the chest is wrong. Both of these things are wrong, but they are wrong in utterly different ways and in different spheres. One is a breach of etiquette; the other is a criminal act. So they aren’t even in the same universe of wrong, and to demand that we recognize Oulson’s wrong behavior and consider it a provocation for Reeves’ wrong behavior reveals a strangely twisted sense of proportion and causality. Even if you argue that Oulson’s share of the blame is relatively small, it still ignores the fact that etiquette and public safety are two completely different arenas of life, governed by completely different considerations.  They intersect only at the point where bad manners become so extreme that they cross over into criminal behavior. Which is pretty much what happened here—except that it was Reeves, not Oulson, who crossed that line.

If Reeves had responded to the thrown popcorn by dumping a coke on Oulson’s head, I would agree that Oulson had provoked him. Even if Reeves had punched Oulson, I’d say yes, he bore some responsibility for the outcome. But that’s not what happened. Reeves didn’t throw a punch, he pulled a gun—on an unarmed man–and by doing so changed the rules so completely and so utterly that anything Oulson did up to that point is no longer material. It doesn’t matter that Oulson was texting, or that he refused to stop, or even that he threw the popcorn. Popcorn is not a lethal weapon. So none of that adds up to a justification for the use of deadly force. As a retired police officer, Reeves should have known that better than anyone, and surely Judge Tepper was thinking that when she denied him bail.


It also is notable that Reeves gave no warning when he pulled the gun—he just fired—suggesting that he shot Oulson not out of fear of attack, as he claimed, but because he was enraged.  It is a tragedy, but a common one—hundreds of petty arguments escalate into fatal shootings every year. This one, though, hits home  because it could  happen to any of us, if not over a text, then something equally trivial. In this rushed and pressured world, it is a rare soul who has not tangled with a stranger over something stupid at some point and regretted it. Now, thanks to the proliferation of concealed carry laws, these encounters become increasingly dangerous, because you never know who is packing.


And I don’t see how that makes any of us safer.


But some people think it does. I have a friend who will never agree with me on the issue of gun control for very personal reasons. Having been face to face with a mugger and a gun, he’s decided never again to be that helpless. He wants to be armed and ready. I cannot argue with that experience; it’s his to own. But where he believes carrying a gun will keep him safe, I think it’s more likely to lead to unintended results. There is no way to prove who is right until something goes horribly wrong; for his sake and mine I hope neither one of us will be vindicated in that way.  But I’ve been a victim of a crime of a different nature, and I know the sense of boiling rage that arises from post-traumatic stress disorder and all its attendant complications. There have been moments in my life where a seemingly trivial offense tripped a deep wire within—and I exploded. If I had a gun in my hand I might have used it. And I have also been on the receiving end of extreme rage as well, mystified by what triggered the outburst. I know from both ends that outsized reactions are not about the apparent offense, but something else, erupting out of some turmoil within. To borrow from the psychologists, a button has been punched.


The mantra of more guns everywhere ignores these realities. It presumes that gun owners always behave responsibly, and it overlooks how many buttons there are to punch in each of us–and how easily irrational anger can overtake the most responsible mind. (One man’s testimony is here.) Surely Curtis Reeves is a poster child for that reality. And that is one reason why I will not accept that Chad Oulson is partly to blame for what happened to him, because what happened to him really has nothing to do with texting. Reeves’ reaction was so outsized, so extreme, so horrifically uncalled for,  that I have to believe it was about something else. Something was boiling inside Curtis Reeves.  You  have to wonder what, but you also have to wonder if someone  who carries a gun into a movie house might not be already predisposed to expect that everyone else does also. And so when the popcorn came flying at him, he presumed that something worse was to follow and fired off the first shot.


That’s the most generous interpretation of the tragedy that I can come to; a judge and jury will sort it out.