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More guns increase risk, even when no one is pointing a firearm at police

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last month, a Nashville police officer shot and injured a 20-year-old. The officer fired when the man was taking his belongings out of a car, including a gun. This incident raises questions about how officers are trained to interact with the many, many, many people in this country who own guns. The presence of a gun on the scene raises the risk for people, even when nobody aims it. This story lasts about four minutes, and it does include sounds from police body cameras that some would find disturbing. Samantha Max of our member station WPLN reports.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Last January, it was Lamon Witherspoon, Nika Holbert in March, Jacob Griffin in May, Antonio King in August and Adrian Cameron in September. Last month, an officer shot and wounded Rod Reed. 2021 far surpassed the typical number of yearly shootings by Nashville police. In 7 of the 10 cases, the person who got shot had a gun. Sometimes, they were holding a firearm from the start. But in other incidents, the encounter started calm. Then the presence of a gun escalated the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Ma'am, put the gun down.

NIKA HOLBERT: I didn't do nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Put the gun down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Where's the gun? Where's the gun?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: Where's the gun?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #4: Drop the weapon. Drop it now. Drop the weapon.

RODNEY REED: And you've got to be trained well enough to deal with people that have guns because you can't say, the minute you touch it, I'm going to shoot you. If you already thought - if you knew I had it, then I got to deal with you accordingly.

INSKEEP: Rodney Reed wants the Nashville Police Department to rethink the way it trains officers to deal with people who have guns. Reed's son Rod was shot in the legs last month during a brief encounter with an officer at the scene of a car crash. Rod was getting his things out of the passenger side of a car. And Officer Byron Boelter had just pulled up to the scene. He told Rod to leave his stuff behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BYRON BOELTER: Go ahead and go, man.

MAX: But Rod kept reaching toward the dashboard, where there was a gun. Boelter immediately fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOELTER: Stop, stop, stop.

MAX: Then Rod was on the ground, screaming in pain. Boelter told him to put his hands up. He tried to assure Rod and said it would be OK. And he asked the 20-year-old why he grabbed for the gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROD REED: I don't know, sir.

BOELTER: Why'd you reach for it, kid?

ROD REED: I was trying to get it out the car, sir.

BOELTER: I know, man.

MAX: The Metro Nashville Police Department's use-of-force training teaches officers that guns pose a threat. They're repeatedly told to be ready to fire to protect themselves and others before someone else can pull the trigger. In Tennessee, the chances of encountering someone with a firearm are high. Data show yearly gun purchases have risen dramatically in the past decade. The same trend holds true on a national level. The FBI conducted about 16 million background checks for gun purchases in 2011. Last year, that number had more than doubled to nearly 39 million. And that's not even including private sales without a background check.

DANIEL NAGIN: I think it's a troubling situation for, you know, police officers.

MAX: Daniel Nagin is a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University who researches the criminal justice system. In 2020, he published a study that found states with a higher prevalence of guns had higher rates of deadly shootings by police. Last year, Tennessee joined a list of more than 20 states that have made it legal for almost any adult to carry a gun without even needing a permit. Many law enforcement officials have urged legislators not to pass these bills. More guns on the streets can make their jobs harder.

NAGIN: They are frequently called upon to enter into dangerous situations. And somebody having a firearm or brandishing it is, I think, almost the definition of an example of a dangerous situation.

MAX: A police spokesperson says officers receive extensive training to deal with people who are armed and that they have learned about Tennessee's new constitutional carry statute, which took effect in July. The department also says it reviews each shooting and considers changes to its curriculum. But any changes will come too late for Rodney Reed's son, who is recovering from gunshot wounds in both legs.

RODNEY REED: You can't come in saying, whoever got a gun, if they budge the wrong way, I'm going to shoot them when you telling them they can have the gun.

MAX: Reed's son was a year too young to legally own a gun in Tennessee. And he's out on bond now after being arrested. But Reed also has questions about how the officer who shot his son acted. Reed says he's talked to his son about what to do if police pull him over, that there's a chance he could get shot. And now that there has been a shooting, he says he's just grateful his son is alive.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "PERSPECTIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Samantha Max