DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. This week with New York Times magazine ethicist Randy Cohen we have a gun safety question. But we promise you, it has nothing to do with the vice president. The question comes from Aaron Buckholtz(ph) in Terre Haute, Indiana, and we have him on the line now. Hello there.
Mr. AARON BUCKHOLTZ (Caller): Hi, how are you?
ELLIOTT: Good. And Randy Cohen is in our New York studio. Are you there, Randy?
Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Aaron Buckholtz, what's your gun safety question?
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: Well, a few weekends ago, my wife and I were taking our kids to the local middle school track to get some exercise, and usually we walk around as they play at one end of the field. And this particular weekend, there were a number of middle-school-aged kids and high school kids playing football, and we thought, wow, this is great, they're actually getting some exercise and having some fun on a nice winter weekend.
But as we rounded the track, I noticed one of the kids had been on the sidelines, was kind of playing with something that looked like a gun. I mean, he was pulling something that was a trigger, and I hear a click, click, click. It was pointed at the ground. He wasn't really showing it off, but he was kind of showing it to a few others kind of surreptitiously.
Now, my dilemma here is, I had a cell phone on me, and I should have or could have called the local police. And so there were many things that kind of came into my decision. First off, the individual was not hurting anyone, so do I really need to call someone? But at the same time, a person did bring what appeared to be a firearm onto school grounds, and that should be illegal, so I should call someone.
But just a week prior to that, an individual who brought a gun to a campus in Florida was shot and killed. So I don't know how my police force would react if I start saying, hey, there's a gun here. So...
ELLIOTT: Now could you tell whether this gun was a toy or not?
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: I couldn't exactly tell.
ELLIOTT: So you were afraid mostly because there was this fresh incident in your mind where a kid with a gun had been shot by police responding.
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: That is exactly what was going through my mind.
ELLIOTT: Well, let's bring in Randy and see what he thinks. What should Aaron have done here?
Mr. COHEN: Erin's kind of question is what ethicists call a duty to report question. He himself has done nothing wrong, but he's witnessed, ostensibly, what's wrongdoing in others. Does he have a duty to come forward? And one guideline for me is you must come forward, you must be a kind of whistleblower if someone represents an imminent, serious threat to themselves or others.
But does this kid, and this is, I think, where we run up against what Aaron didn't do that he might have done. We don't know whether this kid represents a threat to others. What I wonder is why Aaron didn't go talk to the kid? The kid seemed to be acting openly, calmly, wasn't apparently threatening anyone. Why not walk over and see what he's got? Ask him. What do you got there? It might have been BB-gun. It might have been a toy gun. But the first thing I think Aaron might have done that would have been a bit better is to get a little more information.
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: I...
ELLIOTT: Why didn't you do that, Erin?
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: Because I didn't know what it was, and I didn't want anything to escalate. I was walking with my young kids, and my wife is pregnant. I did not want to bring attention to ourselves.
ELLIOTT: Sounds to me like you might have been a little bit afraid, and in that case, I think if I was afraid, I might have called the police.
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: But I wasn't exactly afraid because I didn't feel that he was truly a threat. I thought he was a kid being a kid, and that's why I ultimately chose not to call.
Mr. COHEN: You certainly don't have an obligation to place yourself and your family in danger. I entirely agree with you there. But unless you and your family were manacled together in some way that you haven't revealed to us, you needn't have brought your kids over if you chose to approach this young person.
ELLIOTT: I guess I'm just sort of a chicken, and if I see somebody over there with something and I'm not quite sure what kind of a gun it is, I'm just not gonna go over there.
Mr. COHEN: If you think someone's over there with a gun, I wouldn't go over there either. I yield to no one in my physical cowardice. I think I'm the biggest coward on the line right now. But let's not be paranoids either. Part of making ethical decisions is understanding your world. It's a kind of anthropological choice.
If you see a kid with what looks to Mr. Buckholtz, like a BB-gun or a toy gun, going click, click, click at the ground, apparently not endangering anyone, there's no signs of fear in anyone else, you're asked, well, what do I think is most likely that is going on here? And the answer is, in this time and place in human history, it's probably a kid with a toy gun, unless there's evidence to the contrary.
ELLIOTT: Aaron Buckholtz in Terre Haute, Indiana, thank you for writing to us.
Mr. BUCKHOLTZ: Thank you for helping me out with this.
ELLIOTT: If you want to ask Randy Cohen a question, drop us a line. Go to our website npr.org, click on Contact Us, and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word Ethics in the subject line, and please don't forget to include a phone number where we can reach you.
Randy, thanks as always.
Mr. COHEN: Thanks, Debbie, and I think I showed admirable restraint in not adding the caveat that if this kid were Dick Cheney, then of course you have to call the authorities.
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