#05: The Arizona Perspective—State of Arizona v. Steven Jones

Table of Contents:

A Clash Of Perspectives—Shooters and Students
The Arizona Perspective—State of Arizona v. Steven Jones—2020
Juries—Picked by Chance—Confused by Evidence
But For The Presence Of A Gun . . .

A Clash Of Perspectives—Shooters and Students

            In some ways, the clash of campus perspectives on guns on campus reflects the ideological split between rural and urban America. Or between conservatives and progressives. Or betwixt shooters and students. 99.9 per cent of students enter college to learn, not to shoot, or be shot. The rest are there to prove manhood or retaliate for a perceived threat.  

Escalating gun violence is a scourge in America. It puts politicians in the awkward position of having to take sides—yes on campus guns—no on student safety. For the ultra-conservatives, the answer is to arm the victims and teach them to shoot back. The uptick in gun violence in society tempts conservative politicians to propose concealed carry legislation—guns on campus is good, they say. By arming teachers, we can disarm radicals on campus, they think.

The academy is grappling with this contentious issue as constituents both on and off campus advocate either for gun bans or for concealed carry policies in the name of campus safety. But sadly, the answers are not academic fodder; they are legislative politics, partisan, and petty.  

The Arizona Perspective—State of Arizona v. Steven Jones—2020

Steven Jones brought his gun to the Northern Arizona University campus two weeks into his freshman year. Using it cost him a college degree and six years in prison.[1] He killed one student and maimed three others. His story, his victims’ stories, and Arizona politics are complicated, conflicted, and consequential. My book on the Steven Jones case, titled “Nobody Did Anything Wrong But Me” is what the shooter told the police at the crime scene. Ironically, these four young men were total strangers even though they went to the same small university. They came together in the dark of night and only spent a few minutes in one another’s presence. All were afflicted by a tactical light attached to the barrel of a gun. Jones brandished that gun. The other students their chests.  

Like all campus shootings, the essential truths in the Jones case are irrefutably connected to the larger issues still unresolved in American law, culture, and safety. The pinpoints in the NAU case are pitchforks all over America. The truth did not sway Steven Jones’ jury. All twelve jurors knew Steven Jones had a unique weapon—very expensive and focused on killing rather than maiming. It’s not the kind of gun you take out into the desert and plink ten cans.

They learned that he had an extended magazine, giving him seventeen rounds of hollow-point ammunition. He had a tactical light, enabling him to shoot in the dark. He was trained by his father, using man-sized targets to master the now-famous double-tap technique. Maybe the saddest truth is he loaded his gun with hollow-point bullets for a reason. When a hollow-point bullet strikes a soft target, like human flesh, the pressure created in the pit forces the lead to expand outward, like a mushroom. It is designed to stay in the body, doing the most harm in the shortest time. The greater frontal surface area of the expanded bullet limits its depth of penetration into the target, causing vital and extensive tissue damage along the wound path. It is designed to kill, not wound.

Juries—Picked by Chance—Confused by Evidence

In criminal trials over campus shooting little is known about whether the actual facts influenced the jury, and if so, in which direction. Sometimes, confusion reigns and the law takes a back seat. Owning a gun is a right. Using it in self-defense is permitted. Loading it with seventeen hollow-point bullets is well beyond ownership rights, self-defense, common sense, or even justice. It says something about the shooter that deep down, we don’t want to talk about. And it says something about how young boys are trained to shoot—not in competition, but in real life.

Hundreds of people followed the Steven Jones case closely. Few could see both sides of the story unwrapped in a courtroom but not decided in a jury room. Their stories did not have to end the way they did. We’re all complicit in that. We have inched our way to become the largest gun nation in the world. Every day we pay the price for that dubious honor. We value the Second Amendment more than we value life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

Shooters and their victims are joined at the hip when they face one another on a campus-killing field. Too often the shooter’s life as he knew it is already over. Too often a victims’ life is extinguished. For both families, life will never be the same. The shooter will never own another gun. The dead cannot testify, much less graduate. Shooters and victims are strangers. They meet one another in a way and at a place neither could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Their meeting is a chance occurrence—only for the fewest of minutes.

Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” But law enforcement reports, court transcripts, gigantic digital and virtual files, social media posts, and second-hand explanations make hash out of Pasteur’s famous saying. The lawyers take different stances, the judge referee’s neutrally, and trial witnesses are ill prepared for either direct or cross-examination. Jurors come to the box unprepared, taking their chance on a just and fair verdict. They experienced the trauma of decision-making in a teeth-grinding, stomach-turning, day-by-day experience. They wince at photographic exhibits and bloodstains. They learn about forensic analysis, forensic pathology, post-mortem blood draws, trauma surgery, and making decisions about life, death, and our vaunted burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And sometimes they tire of arguing and go home.  

Nothing can prepare the shooter’s family or the victims’ families for what they have to endure as “their” case is tried. Courts and lawyers think the case is against a defendant; not for those who cannot sit in the jury box. And certainly not for anyone behind the bar in court. But the trial is about “for” and sometimes “against” them. They watch the lawyers, witnesses, court staff, and jurors as the evidence inches forward toward an uncertain future. They rarely see the nuance of trial and error in every shooting case. They came face-to-face with the inherent randomness of trial by jury.

Families sit on opposite sides in courtrooms, often joined by reporters and trial devotees. Together they bear witness to a criminal justice system that delegates to juries the power to decide life, death, guilt, innocence, and lethal force as self-defense. Chance favors no one in a campus shooting cases. Especially not those twelve lonesome souls in the jury box.

Juries are subjected to viewing crime scenes, as seen by others—shooters, victims, witnesses, experts and others, who describe, relate, retell, and disagree. All crime scenes were calm, even serene before a shooter turned them into killing fields. Whether bright or dull, crime scenes have one thing in common—someone there had a gun. In the Jones case it was a Glock .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol in the hands of an eighteen-year-old freshman. He said he was terrified they were after him. What made the NAU crime scene chaotic, unspeakable, and unforgettable? Was it college kids drinking? Was it a college kid exerting his constitutional rights? Was it a toxic mix of adrenaline, epinephrine, hormones, youthful decisions, and exuberance, laced with alcohol and recreational drugs? Was it gun training since the shooter was eight years old? Was it his parents fault? Were both fraternities complicit? Was it a clash of values in America’s 2015 divisive and politically unstable reality? Was it a lack of moral judgment, or any judgment? Or was it just another night in America—gun violence run amuck?

But For The Presence Of A Gun . . .

My answer to those questions is simple—perhaps simplistic. The sole explanation for what happened in the Steven Jones case is the presence of a gun. But for that, no one would have died, been maimed, gone to prison, or later committed suicide. The town and gown communities would have gone about their merry way, learning to live an educated and fulfilling life. The Constitution would be honored, both in its original intent and in its well-interpreted modern reality.

Guns are a way of life for many Americans. “Don’t shoot first” died when Gene Autry died. The Second Amendment now protects your right to shoot first. If you have a gun you can use it. Having it is an individual right under Heller.[2] Liberals are not after John or Jane Q’s guns. They don’t necessarily see guns as evil. Guns are a part of life in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Conservatives, moderates, centrists, liberals, and citizens of all ages have guns. They should not be easily accessible on campuses, churches, around children, or adults acting like children. No one except for the military and law enforcement needs assault weapons.

The debate about gun ownership is over. The debate about gun violence is ongoing. Gun violence should be curbed, even if it means modest, practical changes in gun sales and availability. These notions are not contradictory, but the debate about them is often delusional. Avoiding the consequences of gun violence by insisting on unfettered gun ownership is beyond delusional. Both sides of the debate are led by sane people. Both sides live in fragmented, compartmentalized silos. We seal ourselves off to avoid the consequences. The utter absurdity of arguing, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a prime example of delusion. We ignore death by guns in order to live by guns.

We have always had the right to defend ourselves. In every century except the twenty-first we had to retreat when circumstances demanded it. Then, along came the NRA; they created the twenty-first century stand your ground movement in America. We lost our way when those relative duties and rights retreated and we became a nation of stand your ground zealots. It is now a way of life, and a justification to kill, if you are in the mood. Hope rings eternal. Perhaps young gun owners and gun doubters alike will find the solutions my generation could not. Perhaps we should look to the past for guidance. James Madison, author of the Second Amendment, and Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, believed guns had no place on college campuses. In 1824, at a University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting, both Madison and Jefferson supported a rule prohibiting firearm possession and use by students at the university.[3]

[1] State of Arizona v. Steven Edward Jones, Coconino County Superior Court. No. CR2015-00862. See also, http://www.twelvetablespress.com/publications.

[2]. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570. The Court held that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home and its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purposes of immediate self-defense violated the Second Amendment. The Court held that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. The Court determined that the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announced a purpose but did not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrated that it connoted an individual right to keep and bear arms, and the Court’s reading of the operative clause was consistent with the announced purpose of the prefatory clause. None of the Court’s precedents foreclosed its conclusions. The Court held that the Second Amendment right was not unlimited, and it noted that its opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on certain long-standing prohibitions related to firearms.

[3] Olivia Li and The Trace, “When Jefferson and Madison Banned Guns on Campus.” The Atlantic, May 6, 2016, https://bit.ly/2VvHL8E.  See also, https://everytownresearch.org/report/guns-on-campus/

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