Amid emotional debates over whether tighter gun laws are needed in the wake of several shooting massacres across the country, an investigation into the fatal shooting of John Schaefer will look at what his mindset was when officials say he aimed his pistol at a police officer in March.
Schaefer called 911 on March 1 to report that he had shot and killed a pit bull that attacked him, officials have said, but he refused requests to put his gun in his home before officers arrived. When officer Jonathan Whitted got there and tried to secure the weapon, Schaefer drew the gun and pointed it at the officer, officials have said. Whitted then shot and killed Schaefer.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo recently questioned if, in refusing to hand over his gun, Schaefer was remembering what Acevedo said some politicians have wrongly threatened: that the government is going to disarm Americans.
“What was his mindset in terms of what he felt the officer was trying to do, in terms of his fears of the government taking his guns?” Acevedo said to the American-Statesman last month. “It’s time for people to be a little more responsible and stop trying to exploit the emotion of weapons policies, and that means don’t be telling people that the government’s going to take away our guns when they know it’s not.”
Robby Alden, an attorney representing Schaefer’s family, said a police officer recently interviewed Schaefer’s son, also named John, and asked him to speculate on what might have been going through his father’s mind that day.
Schaefer’s son said he couldn’t guess what his dad was thinking or doing, according to Alden, who voiced frustrations that the department has declined his requests for information related to the shooting, such as any audio or video that might have been captured.
“We’ve got a family whose law-abiding father was shot dead, and it’s hard to put closure on any of this stuff when they won’t give us information,” he said. “If they want to ask us some questions about what Mr. Schaefer may or may not have been thinking … it would be more appropriate if we had the chance to listen to what happened.” Last month, the Texas attorney general ruled that the city could withhold the information.
The city also has declined the American-Statesman’s requests for records relating to the shooting, saying the investigation is ongoing. On Friday, Acevedo said the investigation could be completed in the next 30 to 60 days, but that until a grand jury weighs in, the department’s findings won’t be released.
Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent said it’s the first incident he knows of where the possibility that the gun control debate played a part in provoking the confrontation is being considered.
But Acevedo said he thinks it could illustrate why officials need to be careful in how they characterize gun control legislation. Extreme political rhetoric in debates over firearms is falsely stoking fears that the government is going to disarm law-abiding citizens, he said, heightening government distrust and creating an environment that puts police officers at risk.
He pointed online for examples of tirades against police officers that he called vile and reckless.
Tom Mijares, a criminal justice professor at Texas State University and a former police officer, said he doesn’t know of any academic studies looking at whether there’s a relationship between the gun control debate and violence toward law enforcement officials.
Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, declined to speculate on what happened at Schaefer’s home on March 1 or what was going on in Schaefer’s head. But he cautioned against assuming that because Schaefer owned several guns and, according to his family, cared deeply about gun rights, he was mentally unstable or a “gun nut.”
It’s a characterization that Burrus said has emerged from some gun control advocates, who he said shame gun owners.
“The gun debate that we are having is increasingly becoming a culture debate where there’s one side who kind of wonders why someone would ever want to own guns at all, and then the other side that enjoys guns and uses them responsibly,” Burrus said. “And the rhetoric that comes from the gun control crowd doesn’t make anyone feel any better about it.”
Sean Mannix, Cedar Park’s police chief and a former assistant Austin police chief, said he thinks the average gun owner generally cooperates with law enforcement. But he said that growing anti-government movements like the “sovereign citizen” movement show that government distrust is increasingly widespread.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of so-called “sovereigns” is growing, and some have reacted violently to law enforcement officials over the years, including a father and son who shot and killed two police officers in Arkansas who had pulled them over during a routine traffic stop in 2010.