Matt Evans: The Myth of the Unarmed Man


“God created men; Samuel Colt made them equal”
— attributed to Colt Firearms Advertising

If you’ve been paying attention to the Michael Brown shooting story from Ferguson, MO, you’ve no doubt heard that he was unarmed. Years ago, you also heard that Trayvon Martin was unarmed.

In these cases, the media seems to have focused on reiterating their claim that the shooting victims were unarmed, but the media doesn’t seem to explain why this is an important detail, or to elaborate on why it is so critical to mention it every time.

I cannot explain precisely why the media does this, but I have my suspicions, and they are not charitable. They are not charitable because the people who choose to focus on one party in a gunfight being “unarmed” are either ignorant, in which case they can be excused once they have shown they understand their error, or are being intentionally manipulative, in which case, I’m not sure they can be excused, given the gravity of the damage they are doing to social discourse and public morality.

When the media repeats, over and over, that someone was unarmed, but refuses to explain why this is important, they are insinuating or hinting at claims that they are not willing to state. Whether they realize this or not, this is a known smear technique. If the media were to explain why it was relevant that a given shooting victim were considered “unarmed”, then the public could examine the claims and the principles critically, and come to some conclusion based on a rational process.

Instead, the media uses the word “unarmed” without explaining what it means or why it is important. This is done to provoke an emotional response, and to poison the public’s perception of the shooter with ideas of excessive force, excessive violence, disproportionate power, etc. This smear prevents us from asking the questions about if the shooter’s response was appropriate until after the media has already told us that it was not. The technique can be especially effective because if the speaker does not state a principle or test for when shooting someone who is unarmed might be appropriate, then the charge of “unarmed victim” can bypass the listeners rational facilities and tug on their emotions instead.

If the media were to come right out and say, “a person with a gun should never shoot someone who isn’t holding a weapon”, I think most reasonable people would disagree. I certainly would. I suspect I can propose many scenarios where a person with a gun is justified in shooting people who aren’t holding guns or knives.

For instance:

  • You are a 90 year old man. A 20 year old intruder breaks into your home. You draw your weapon, tell him to leave. He approaches you, raises his fists to strike, and yells, “I am going to kill you, old man!”

Is there really anyone who doesn’t think the 90 year old is justified in shooting at this point?

  • You are a petite female police officer. You come upon someone who is being beaten by 4 thugs. You draw your gun and yell at the thugs to stop and freeze. Instead, they start approaching you, yelling at you about all of the ways they are going to assault you sexually because there are four of them and one of you

Is there really anyone who doesn’t think the female officer is justified in shooting?

Clearly, armed people can and SHOULD shoot “unarmed” people in certain situations. In these situations, would the media repeatedly remind us that the young intruder or the four thugs were “unarmed”?

I don’t think so.

So, it cannot be the case that the media thinks that anytime someone is not carrying a weapon, they shouldn’t be shot. When, then, does the media choose to make a point of repeating that the person who was shot was “unarmed” ?

In the cases of Martin and Brown, the media is painting a particular narrative. These were one on one confrontations between men. In both cases, the media spent considerable effort emphasizing the racial aspects of the encounters. The claim that the victims were “unarmed” came along for the emotional ride. The picture that the media is painting is that non-black folks with guns are killing helpless innocent black people without guns.

This has the predictable effect of causing a litany of people who claim that guns are a tool of racism.

This is false. Guns are a tool of equality. In the hypothetical situations above, it is clear that the gun is the tool that lets an older man defend himself against a young attacker, or the petite officer to fend off multiple larger attackers.

The gun was the first device in human history that leveled the playing field in a violent confrontation. Prior to the gun, the strong dominated the weak, the young dominated the old, the males violated the females, and the many abused the few. The gun is the most civilized device we have, because it finally disrupts the violent laws of nature; it sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom — where size, youth, and aggression still rule the pack.

What the media doesn’t tell you is that there is considerable law on the books in most states that governs when a private citizen may legally shoot another human being. The law is clear: a reasonable person, when placed in that situation, must have legitimate fear that they are about to suffer great bodily harm. It doesn’t matter if the attacker has any kind of weapon at all. Legally, all that matters is if a reasonable person would be afraid for their own safety, and feel, in that moment, that they had no choice but to shoot the attacker in order to stop or prevent the harm.

As controversial as the Trayvon Martin shooting was, and as controversial as the events were that led up to the actual altercation, once the altercation was underway, there was only ever going to be one outcome. The eye witnesses, and the expert witnesses, all testified that Zimmerman was laying on the sidewalk, having the tar beat out of him by the physically superior Martin. Remember, Martin was not the 12 year old kid you saw pictures of- he was a high school football player. Zimmerman was an overweight man pushing 30.

Let’s ignore how Zimmerman and Martin started the fight for a moment. What the witnesses saw, and what the medical examiners agreed upon, was that Zimmerman was on his back, having his head pounded into the pavement, and was generally getting ruined. If you were on your back, getting beat up by a guy you didn’t know, and who you assumed was a criminal, would you fear for your life? If, as Zimmerman claimed, your attacker started to reach for your gun, would you fear for your life?

I would.

Legally, it doesn’t matter that Martin didn’t have a gun yet. Anyone in Zimmerman’s situation would have done the same thing. That is what made the shooting justified.

There is a documentary film called “One Punch Homicide”, which suggests that between 500 and 1000 one-punch homicides occur in the US each year. If these numbers are true, then this means that more people are killed by a single thrown punch every year than are killed by so called “assault weapons”.

Think about that. The politicians are making a huge deal about assault weapons and gun violence, but more people are dying from getting punched.

As we continue to deconstruct the myth of the unarmed man, I’d like to ask a different question.

Suppose that I am an able bodied man with a gun, and some other man who has the same weight, age, race, physical prowess, and training as I do decides he wants to beat me up. He starts throwing punches at me.

When, in the world of the mythical unarmed man, am I allowed to fight back? After all, I have a gun, and according to the media, my attacker is “unarmed”. Am I allowed to shoot? In the world of the media, how many times does he get to punch me before I get to shoot him so that he finally stops trying to hurt me?

The idea that because my attacker isn’t using a gun or a knife, that I need to sit there and let him hit me is completely absurd. It defies reason — and this is why the media never dives into what they mean when they talk about an “unarmed man”.

The media’s myth of the “unarmed man” is cast into stark abhorrent clarity when we consider how the media reports on cases of domestic violence. When the man who has a restraining order against him breaks into the house of his battered estranged wife, and the wife shoots him, the media doesn’t mention that the attacking man was unarmed. Why not? In actual fact, he was just as unarmed as Trayvon Martin was. Why not emphasize this? Is there a charitable explanation, or is this evidence of a media that smears some acts of self defense and not others?

Let’s now return to the recent story of Michael Brown and the Ferguson police.

I have no idea what really happened, and as I wrote last week, I am disappointed that we don’t have reliable video evidence showing the whole encounter. So while I don’t know what actually happened, I do know that the media’s noise about Brown being “unarmed” is the same smearing that they perpetrated when Trayvon Martin showed up to his gunfight without a gun.

Police officers, like private citizens, are not obligated to stand there and get beat up. They are not obligated to be martial arts experts who can parry any attack. The officer has claimed that Brown was violent with him, specifically, that Brown pushed the officer down.

If that’s true, and I was that officer, I would have drawn my service weapon immediately, and trained it on Brown. I would have done this before I even bothered to get up. If I am already on the ground in a physical confrontation with someone who has surprised and overpowered me, I am going to do the singular act which all fighters since Samuel Colt have done to even the odds as quickly as possible — to draw their firearm and ready it on their attacker.

We still don’t know what Brown did and what the officer did. But if it were me laying there, having just been knocked down by a guy angry enough to assault a police officer, I’d have my gun drawn and I’d be shouting commands at the suspect to try and stop what I thought was an attack. Attacking a police officer is a crime, and if Brown truly attacked the officer, then Brown showed either a willingness to assault an officer, or, an inability to control his own violence.

I’m not saying that Brown should have been shot. Until we have more evidence, I can’t make a claim like that. I am saying that claims that Brown was unarmed are irrelevant to the question of if he should have been shot or not. If the officer had a legitimate fear that he was under attack, shooting was justified until the attack stopped. If the officer shot a Brown who was trying to surrender, or who hadn’t pushed the officer or assaulted the officer to begin with, then the shooting was never justified, and the officer should face severe consequences.

I’m afraid that the media is making a big deal about Brown being unarmed to put one over on you; to create news instead of report news. Don’t believe the myth of the unarmed man. Wait until we know what position the officer was in. Then ask a simple question: was the officer under attack? Would you have feared for your safety if you were in his position?