IM: Gun-Shy Nation

This has been bugging me since it happened but it's also led me to A Big Conclusion. So. Here's a story for you.

On November 4, a 19-year-old named Tyler Comstock, who lived in a small town near mine, died here in Ames on campus, shot by a member of the Ames Police Department. You can read the details here, and for a link to a dashboard, police-car video cam, see here. 

But here's a summary of what happened.

Comstock's father works for a local landscaping company and was, I gather, at a job when his son showed up and asked for money for cigarettes. Dad declined.

Tyler hopped in his dad's work truck and took off. That truck, like all the trucks for that particular company (I know this company well, see its trucks all the time), was a regular pickup pulling a flatbed trailer with side-gates. (Because the guys who work for the company haul needed equipment: mulchers, mowers, etc.)

The dad called the police and reported his son had stolen the truck. He stressed that Tyler was pissed off, but was NOT carrying a weapon of any kind.

A police chase ensued. If you watch the video, you'll see, yeah, it was not a good chase. The truck trailer and its equipment are bouncing like mad, pieces of equipment are flying off the truck, pedestrians, of whom there were many, are scrambling to get out of the way.

Twice during the pursuit, the police dispatcher, on orders from higher-ups, suggested that the cops stop the chase. Comstock was driving fast in a heavily trafficked area with lots of pedestrians.

Comstock kept driving; the cops kept chasing. Eventually he "landed" on the central campus of Iowa State University (about a mile from my house). Central campus is a big open space (football-field sized) landscaped with many big trees.

We'd had rain recently, and once Comstock left a paved road and tried to drive through central campus, the truck got stuck in the mud. He sat there, flooring the accelerator, trying to get away. The truck was near a small grove of large trees (I know the exact spot well) and within a few minutes, Comstock and the truck were completely surrounded by city and campus police.

Put another way, between the mud and the cars, Comstock wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Despite that, about two minutes later, he was dead, shot by a member of the Ames Police Department.


Three days after Comstock died, the APD released a report about the tragedy. The use of force was justified, said the department; the officer was not at fault.  Their rationale for that ruling was:

  1. Comstock was driving recklessly and at high speed in an area with lots of traffic, both vehicular and foot.
  2. Comstock was using the truck as a dangerous weapon.

Except --- at the moment Comstock was shot, neither criteria applied. His "dangerous weapon" was stuck in mud. And even if Comstock could have gotten some traction and moved the truck forward, he wasn't going anywhere. He was penned in by big trees and multiple police vehicles.

I think we can safely assume that in the last minutes of his life, Comstock was angry but also scared to death. He surely knew he was in deep shit and was panicking.

Had the cops simply waited 15 minutes for Comstock to calm down, he'd still be alive. The cop with the gun could have shot out the tires, could even have shot at the hood, just to make sure Tyler got the point. And then simply waited. My guess is that Tyler would have had his hands up and out of the car within five minutes. As I say, had the cops just waited, well, his parents wouldn't have had to bury him.


I try to not second-guess police activities, no matter how unwarranted they sound. I'm not there. I'm not the one who senses danger, real or imagined. But in this case -- what a tragic fuck up -- and how normal it's become.

And so finally to my point. I had to ask myself: "Why the FUCK did the cop shoot at the kid? Why? By the time they surrounded him,  he wasn't going anywhere anytime soon."

And I think I know why:

Because we now live in guy-shy nation. Every cop, heck, ALL of us, I think, now operate on the assumption that when someone goes haywire, ballistic, postal, whatever, that he/she has a gun. And so cops and civilians alike are expecting the worst and act accordingly.

Gun-Shy Nation. We assume and expect guns. I hasten to add that on the subject of gun control, I am not what you think. I have mixed feelings. Mostly I think instead of trying to legislate who can/can't carry a gun and where and when, we'd all be better off if we asked ourselves why in the world we feel like we NEED guns. That's the issue. Now how/when to regulate their use.

And the sad fact is, that while we're all sitting around debating the details, we're all now also wired to expect the presence of a gun. And in Gun Shy Nation, that means we expect the worst. And we shoot first and justify later.

And that's the true tragedy.