Does gun safety advocacy come with perks?

Well, I don’t get heath insurance coverage, gym memberships or even a paycheck, but I do work with some of Austin’s finest police officers—an Assistant Police Chief who’s attended every gun safety event I’ve ever participated in. He’s so supportive of storing firearms safely that he’ll speak openly about it on panels. He knows my story about Jon’s death.

Last fall I did an event on National Night Out with the UT SafeHorns organization. The event was held at the University’s Coop Food Truck Courtyard. For non-UT buffs, that’s on Guadalupe between San Antonio and 23rd. SafeHorns had also invited other safety groups like EMS and APD. These officers brought the drunk buster goggles that simulate a person impaired, plus there was food and prizes. I invited the Assistant Police Chief Reyes. Like always, he made his appearance, and chatted with students about the importance of gun safety.

Reyes and booth volunteers SafeHorns

National Night Out at the UT SafeHorns event with Chief Reyes and volunteers

Before he left that night, I told him I was taking the Citizen Police Academy course he had suggested. I knew nothing about this program until I became friends with an Assistant Police Chief.

I call that class a perk for my gun safety work. Police and protection go hand-in-hand.  I was spending 14 weeks in a classroom led by members of law enforcement who were experienced in their area—APD cadet training, robbery, current events, homicides, and cold cases. I was hoping to get some insight into how Jon’s death was examined. I was doing my own detective work. “It’s a two-way communication between police officers and the public, ” said APD Chief Manely that first day.

I also took a few field trips. The 911 call center, or command center, is where the first responders work. Seeing it in action was out of this world—high tech, minute by minute stuff. I watched a guy who was watching three screens of conversations, each conversation highlighted by a different color. There was another room on another nigh for simulating real-world police challenges. That was the hardest for me.

Inside that room I pretended to be a police officer. I learned first hand what it was like to be a cop. I was fitted with a fake gun with a laser pointer at the end. I went into this small dark room which has a projector pointed at a big screen. Behind a glassed-off corner, a couple of police guys were filming my experience, I think. The officer in charge explained how the scenario would go. “There will be two situations. You have to determine if these situations pose a threat and how you will respond.”

Honestly,  I could already feel my heart jumping through my t-shirt. The first man was homeless, and I thought he was harmless. My bad, he had a gun hidden in his pants. It only took a second for my life to be over. He pulled out a gun and shot me. I tried to calm myself but I suddenly felt my son Jon’s fear. I can’t explain it. I saw his life gone in that instant.

I tried to pull myself together for the second encounter, a normal traffic stop. This guy, a man of color, was into body building. His biceps were the size of both of my legs. I could see, as he started to get out the car, his Iron Man t-shirt fit nicely over the his well-defined pecs. It wasn’t real. It was just a simulation. This guy was unarmed. I tried to telling him to get back into the car. My hand trembled on the gun attached to my waist.  What happened next gave me a moment to learn from the experience. I will not pre-judge all those news reports where police officers must respond to situations. The body builder did not make it out of the simulation alive, I’m sad to report. I took his life with a single shot.

The officer in charge called me the next day. She could tell how the experience rattled me. It had to do with Jon’s death, the taking of lives with guns. Holding that fake gun with its laser pointer showed me how much danger is in every gun. Everybody should take responsibility for firearms. That’s why Lock Arms for Life is my life’s mission since Jon died. Maybe someone who’s been trained in safety wouldn’t have killed the wrong man. That’s what safety can do. It keeps us all alive to tell stories about those moments of danger.

Perks really do come in all different shapes. I learned that until we have all of the facts, it’s better to withhold our responses to a threat. Safety can be taught. It doesn’t have to come from a tragic loss, or even the wrong choice in a simulator.