The Parable of the ‘Good Guy With a Gun’ Is Rewritten

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Emantic Bradford Jr. was at the intersection of three powerful vectors of American culture on Thanksgiving night -- consumerism, racism and gun culture.

It wasn't the shopping that killed him.

Bradford died last Thursday at the Riverchase Galleria mall outside Birmingham, Alabama, where Black Friday came early. There was an "original altercation," according to officials, on the second floor of the mall outside Foot Action near the J.C. Penney. A bad guy with a gun wounded two people before fleeing.

Then the police arrived. Apparently they were unable to discern whether Bradford, who had a concealed-carry license and had his gun drawn in the wake of the violence, was a good guy or a bad guy. What they saw was a 21-year-old black guy. With a gun. You know what happened next.

"Our deepest sympathy and thoughts are extended to the families of those affected by the traumatic events surrounding the officer-involved shooting last Thursday evening, November 22, 2018," reads a statement from the Alabama city of Hoover and its police department.

That evasive mumble was not the first police statement on the killing, however. The police initially had a more straightforward declaration, describing the officer's shooting of Bradford as "heroic." Authorities then concluded that, on second thought, it was "unlikely" that Bradford had been involved in the previous shooting. Now, with a little more time and information, they have moved on to the "sympathy and thoughts" phase of the "officer-involved" tragedy.

"Any gun in the hands of a good man is no threat to anyone, except bad people," said Charlton Heston during his long tenure as mascot for the National Rifle Association.

Unfortunately, the actor died before revealing the secret of how to tell a good man with a gun from a bad one. NRA leader Wayne LaPierre fashioned his own version of the slogan -- "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun" -- after the 2012 massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut, by a young psychopath whose mother had encouraged his affection for guns.

Yet once again, the critical information -- how to tell the good guys from bad -- went missing.

Without it, the lethal downside of the NRA's obsession with putting guns in the hands of anyone who wants one, anywhere he wants it, for any reason whatsoever, becomes acute.

Alabama, for example, combines some of the nation's shoddiest gun laws with one of the nation's highest rates of gun violence. Unless police get hold of the magic recipe for telling good guys from bad, confrontations are likely to be tense, and confusion inevitable. And if the subject of police attention under such stressful conditions is a black male, the results can be "traumatic" indeed. 

The NRA has been silent about Bradford's killing, as it typically is after shooting deaths of innocent black men, whether the dead had been armed or not. The organization spreads fear and loathing of government agents -- "jack-booted thugs," as LaPierre once called them -- and the group's web site features a stew of reactionary paranoia and anti-government propaganda. But the NRA doesn't get worked up when government agents wrongfully kill black men.

The crossroads of consumerism, racism and gun culture, where Emantic Bradford Jr. died on Thanksgiving night, is where the NRA lives. Black Friday is typically the biggest sales day of the year for the gun industry. Black deaths are collateral damage on the way to the cash register.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.