Tony Norman: Fla. shooting case is theater of the absurd

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On Monday, Curtis Reeves, a 71-year-old former police captain, ignored the signs posted at a Florida movie theater forbidding weapons on the premises. Mr. Reeves was attending a screening of "Lone Survivor" with his wife and son, a police officer.

Sitting a row in front of him, 43-year-old Chad Oulson, a former U.S. Navy petty officer, and his wife were enjoying a rare midday matinee without their 3-year-old daughter, who was home with a baby-sitter.

According to reports, Mr. Oulson exchanged texts with the baby-sitter before the movie started to make sure all was well. Because their daughter is recovering from a recent dog attack, the Oulsons treated the phone as if it were tethered to the most precious person in their lives.

Mr. Reeves reportedly glowered at the couple before asking Mr. Oulson to stop texting. Mr. Oulson ignored him. Mr. Reeves tried to find the theater manager, but he was busy with another customer. Words were eventually exchanged while Mr. Reeves' son was in the lobby on a refreshment run.

The dispute quickly escalated. A bag of popcorn was angrily flung. It isn't clear who threw the first kernel. Witnesses insisted it was Mr. Reeves, who, in turn, blamed Mr. Oulson.

Allegedly fearing for his life, Mr. Reeves pulled a .380 semi-automatic handgun and shot Mr. Oulson. The bullet passed through Mrs. Oulson's hand as she tried to shield her husband. Several theater patrons tried to help Mr. Oulson, whose last words were reported to be something like: "I can't believe he shot me."

Mr. Reeves was put behind bars and charged with second degree murder, with the incident another example of Florida's eccentric criminal landscape and insane gun laws. The theory his lawyer spun about his fearing for his life didn't begin to jibe with reality and was widely ridiculed, even by Second Amendment absolutists. Mr. Reeves helped start Tampa's tactical response team in the 1990s, so his attempts to portray himself as some kind of scaredy cat added an element of absurdity.

Though he's 71, Mr. Reeves is a beefy, muscular man who, at least in his mug shot, retains the intimidating grimace of the cop he once was, but he didn't have the reputation of someone who would shoot a person for something as trivial as texting in a theater.

Even if you take the former officer at his word that he feared bodily harm, what sane person would try to rationalize the brutal act of taking a husband from his wife and a father from his daughter because of a flung bag of popcorn? What happened to his instincts about serving the public?

What kind of person takes a firearm into a theater where, presumably, the other patrons are unarmed? And if he was afraid, why didn't he wait for his son, also a policeman, to return before taking matters into his own soon-to-be-bloody hands? It makes you wonder if he would've shot at the couple if their daughter was present. One shudders to think what he would've done if they had brought a crying baby into the theater.

Another couple quickly came forward with their own story of a frightening theater encounter with Mr. Reeves. They believe what happened to the Oulsons could've easily happened to them if they hadn't backed down in the face of his threats. He was a scary old dude who looked like the type who would go to extremes, in their opinion. Angry, misanthropic gun-toters spring up in the Florida sunshine like poison mushrooms.

Only the most irrational gun enthusiasts are defending Mr. Reeves on newspaper comment boards and blogs. There is a class of very scared gun owners out there who claim they would have done the same thing as Mr. Reeves did under the circumstances. Flicked popcorn kernels constitute assault if Mr. Oulson threw it first.

They believe Mr. Oulson should've been packing heat for self-defense, which would've dissuaded Mr. Reeves from shooting him if he thought there was a reasonable chance he and his family might die in a fusillade of returning bullets. The shooter didn't have a reasonable fear of being shot. We need the homeostasis of the Old West to be safe.

Ironically, Florida, like a lot of states, is having problems with prisoners smuggling unauthorized phones into their cells to continue criminal enterprises. While awaiting trial, Curtis Reeves probably won't give any of those guys a hard time for texting, now that his great equalizer -- his gun -- has been taken from him.

He will probably look the other way because he's surrounded by people who are younger and crazier than he is. In prison, "stand your ground" laws are just another silly theory.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG. First Published January 16, 2014 11:55 PM

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