Cook: When reason and handguns crash

Cook: When reason and handguns crash

October 15th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Days after Tennessee was named the most violent state in America, Kevin Chitty walked away a free man.

In one of the most disturbing legal cases of the year, a jury of his peers declared Friday that Chitty acted in self defense when he shot a man in the back of the neck.

It was Thanksgiving 2011, around midnight. Chitty, 45, had stopped his Ford F-150 at a red light on Bonny Oaks Drive. With him, his two sons and toddler grandson. Out of nowhere, 37-year-old Jerry Martin rear-ended his Oldsmobile into Chitty, who then exited the truck.

And brought his .40-caliber handgun with him.

Moments later, a bullet would crash into the vertebrae of Martin as he was driving away, leaving him paralyzed. What happened between the red light crash and that fired bullet is contested between the two men.

Martin's story: He got out of his Oldsmobile and walked toward the truck to see how bad the damage was. He said Chitty was out of his truck, acting angrily. Cursing. Martin got back in the car and started to drive away.

That's when Chitty fired.

Chitty's story: Martin flashed a gun as he steered his Oldsmobile parallel to Chitty's truck, where his grandson and sons sat vulnerably.

So Chitty fired.

To protect his family.

In self defense.

"I'm sorry, I thought he had a gun," Chitty told police.

But Martin didn't.

No gun, anywhere in the car. On his body. Nowhere.

"We the jury find the defendant Kevin Lamont Chitty not guilty," the jury foreman said.

Because, as attorneys argued, Chitty acted appropriately under Tennessee law. He felt threatened. Saw a gun. Had to protect his family. And under such guidelines, at least in this case, self-defense becomes synonymous with shooting an unarmed man as he drives away.

I'm not vilifying Chitty who, reportedly, is a good family man, and no doubt troubled by his actions. He has no criminal history of this or that.

Martin? He had at least one open warrant. A criminal record of drug charges and aggravated assault. Had been drinking that night. Possessed no driver's license or car insurance. (Which probably meant he'd be fleeing the scene anyway, not looking for gunplay with strangers.)

But when Chitty opened his truck door under the midnight sky, he knew none of that.

And their story is less about the way they crashed into one another and more about our society and what we are allowing to happen.

Chitty had a dozen options before he decided to fire.

Call the police.

Call the police again.

Stay in the truck.

Speed away if he felt threatened.

Or go through the normal routine that happens every day across the country when two people in cars crash into one another.

But this collision led to a different collision of sorts. Chitty, who had his concealed handgun, said he saw Martin pull out a gun.

And such an illusion -- for there was no gun in Martin's hand -- is a by-product of gun culture which over-arms itself to protect against danger here, danger there. If you've armed yourself, you're looking for a threat. And what you see is what you get.

Concealed-carry culture produces a population of quasi-vigilantes. It bypasses the role of police and turns regular citizens into hyper-alert guardians. About half of all aggravated assaults and homicides happen between people living under the same roof, yet concealed-carry culture denies the domestic privateness of such violence and turns normal, everyday actions -- like a traffic accident -- into situations pregnant with danger.

If you carry a gun into public, you see the world quite differently than those who do not. As Chitty did, you see things that are not there.

Gun or no gun? The jury said it did not matter. Asked by attorneys the haunting question -- would a reasonable person behave in such a way? -- jury members said yes.

Yes, Chitty's actions are reasonable. In this brave new world of ours, this is how reasonable people behave.

So in this post-Trayvon, Wild West landscape of our own creation, little fender-benders turn into shoot-outs as gun culture creates what it seeks to avoid.

Martin said he was scared of Chitty.

Chitty said he was scared of Martin.

So he shot him.

And a jury said it was reasonable, here in the land of Volunteer violence.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.