Austin at Large: Good Guys With Guns
Garrett Foster died in an outbreak of gun violence. But there’s more to the story.
As Jimmy Flannigan says in our cover story, Garrett Foster was murdered in the street while exercising both his First and Second Amendment rights. (It's OK for him, or for the Mike Ramos Brigade, to call it murder; journalists have to be more circumspect.) We should – and, in this issue, have tried to – document and grieve his death for exactly what it was and remember Foster as exactly who he was, and not too promptly get caught up in what this horrible event symbolizes and in creating narratives.
But in our mediated age, the search for meaning and the production of narrative began immediately. By Sunday morning, 12 hours after Garrett Foster died, the divergent storylines were clearly set and, powered by predispositions, outran the verified facts. To thousands around the world, Garrett Foster clearly deserved to die; to thousands more, he had clearly been assassinated by agents or allies of the state.
The first of these narratives has been weakened, now that we know that Foster did not fire the rifle he was carrying and probably didn't even raise it. The second has been strengthened by APD's cavalier handling of the still-unidentified person who killed Foster, whom they ludicrously claim they lacked probable cause to arrest. We don't know yet if the killer was a cop, or a cop's kid, or if the cops kept EMS from reaching Foster in time, or many other things that have been alleged and that the Chronicle continues to investigate. But we do know the killer is walking free.
Confounding the Narrative
It's easy to classify these narratives as "right-wing" and "left-wing," but Garrett Foster himself confounds this neat sorting of political beliefs. Where do white, ex-military, anti-government, open-carry guys who are also explicitly anti-racist and who lose their lives defending – literally – Black lives fit into the discourse? Foster was not the only one, as you could see at the vigil in his memory and at the marches since, as a volunteer corps of mostly white guys with guns has arisen to protect the Mike Ramos Brigade.
Many mainstream leaders and voices have sidestepped this messy reality by chalking Foster's death up to "gun violence." This includes our mayor and others on our City Council. In fairness, their alignment with this narrative is not simply facile; they've just received the report of their Task Force on Gun Violence, formed after the El Paso massacre, and are weighing how to factor it into the budget they're set to adopt next week. So gun violence is on their minds as they are confronted with the hot spotlight of worldwide attention on this incredibly fraught homicide just blocks from City Hall.
But even if we just focus our attention on guns, what played out on Congress Avenue Saturday night is not just an outcome of "too many guns" in the abstract, a fatal case of what many view as a public health crisis, an epidemic just like COVID-19. That's the framing of the movement for gun safety that aims to be centrist, nonpartisan, even apolitical – that's typified by the "reasonable measures" promoted by Mike Bloomberg's Everytown groups and approved by Democrats in Congress.
The Ground We Stand
That framing is insufficient to explain how and why Garrett Foster died. In Texas, we have created, promoted, and ennobled as a fundamental civil right the legal circumstances that allowed a shoot-out (involving a third armed participant) to erupt on Congress Avenue, amidst huge crowds and with law enforcement standing nearby on high alert. Some of the measures that got us here are specific responses to Second Amendment obligations, however much we disagree on their necessity or scope. But others reflect conscious political choices by the rulers of Texas on what their preferred narrative views as criminal acts.
As the Mike Ramos Brigade has observed, APD's framing of the Foster killing supports a "stand your ground" defense for the shooter: They found themselves in a hostile crowd; a man with a gun approached them; they felt threatened; they pulled their own weapon and fired. Even this version of events doesn't explain why the driver had a gun at the ready upon encountering the crowd, as the video of the shooting suggests they must, and not safely stored. But it's not hard to believe that even if "lacked probable cause" is ridiculous, a successful prosecution, or even indictment, would be hard to secure under Texas law.
Except that the exact same defense would be available to Foster if he had fired his gun and shot, or even killed, the driver. The video certainly appears to show a car being used as a weapon; Foster and the MRB had already been threatened in the same manner a month earlier; he was armed to protect himself as well as his vulnerable fiancée and other marchers. Would he be walking free right now? Almost surely not. Would he get indicted? What do you think?
We could say we'll never know, but that's probably not true. Now that the civil unrest has escalated to armed conflict, we'll likely encounter a case – hopefully not ending in death – where these roles are reversed. At the core of any serious conversation about police reform, disinvestment, or abolition lies a confrontation with the deeply entrenched, even subconscious beliefs that explain why the outcome of that case might be different.