In my naive freshman year I was arriving at campus around 7:30am to get a relatively decent parking spot and only have a ten minute walk to class. I could arrive at 7:45am, but the walk would be closer to fifteen minutes. Plus, I could use the extra 20 minutes to study before my 8:00am class. What I failed to account for was the white female student who was arriving to campus about the same time and walking to the same building. Some days we were not in sync and I never saw her. Other days she’d be slightly behind. The days where she was slightly ahead became scary when the Campus Safety officer started showing up and placing himself between us with his hand on his gun watching me. The message was clear that the officer was ready in case of danger. But, I also suspect the officer used this to signal a message of intimidation that he would have no problem shooting me if there was a need. So, I would sit in my car until 7:40am and place myself outside the dangerous window of time.
It was a common occurance for me that Campus Safety officers would hold their gun still inside the holster while talking to people of color. African-American males would hang out on the Quad joking around the same as they might on their home front porches. Campus Safety would show up and order them to disperse while holding their weapon. The Quad was the only designated area of campus where students are allowed to gather. White students were okay, but black males must disperse under duress of armed officers holding their guns “just in case.”
When interacting with my white friends, these same officers never touched their gun. The message was also clear that the officers did not feel in danger around my white friends. This held true even when my white friends were antagonizing a visiting preacher and causing a very tense, uneasy situation. These were college kids looking for a fight, but intimidation was not warranted when the pale kids were aggressive.
This was not the experience with all law enforcement during the same period. City, county, and state officers who pulled me over for speeding or a not working tail light often did the same hand on the gun thing. An off duty city police officer would work security midnight to 8am at the Waffle House knockoff where my friends and I would hang out Saturday and Sunday mornings. He never did the hand on the gun thing for anyone that I saw. Even when belligerent drunks were about to throw down, the threat of using the gun was not suggested. When I asked about the behavior of officers holding their gun while interacting with others, he expressed concern about the threatening posture of it. Talks about what he liked doing the job was helping people and building a rapport and de-escalating tense situations. He had the gun in case, but for him it was a tool for a very specific job that he would rather not cause.
When people talk about civilians carrying a gun, I think back to these encounters. The presence of a gun would make them more intense and dangerous not less. The officer would be more terrified of what I might do. My darker skin adds to the threat calculus. Enough so I feel like I would be more likely to be shot carrying than not. We are supposed to be safe by complying with an officer’s orders. Lately the citizen videos seem to show that is not necessarily the case. Tell the officer you are armed and have a permit might just make the officer more twitchy. They have the gun to use deadly force if necessary but the threat of deadly force is a tool to intimidate us unarmed citizens. It maybe makes them more confident knowing they could protect themselves against me if needed when I am unarmed. Having my own gun removes that confidence making it more likely that I end up shot.