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August 18, 2008

"Reasonable Belief"

On July 9, a confrontation between an Indiana resident and a homeless man led to tragic violence in Salt Lake City, Utah. That day, Michael James Mays—who had a history of substance abuse problems—was seen pacing across the street from Mama’s Southern Plantation restaurant while talking on a cell phone. He then turned towards restaurant patron George Harrison, who was sitting outside Mama’s with a group of people, and approached him while shouting expletives. Harrison—who said that Mays lifted his shirt up and reached for his waistband—pulled out a concealed handgun and fired once at Mays, killing him. Police later determined that Mays had been unarmed.

Harrison is a concealed carry permit holder in the state of Indiana. Individuals who hold a valid concealed carry permit in any other state may freely carry concealed handguns while in Utah due to a reciprocity law.

The District Attorney’s office has exonerated Harrison and spokesperson Alicia Cook has stated, “We believe this incident falls within the parameters of self-defense and that the shooting was justified.” Oddly, Cook was also quoted in the same statement as saying, “You cannot use lethal force to respond to a fistfight.” Utah law allows the use of lethal force for self-defense when an individual “reasonably believes” that it is necessary “to prevent death or serious bodily injury.” Additionally, the law contains “Shoot First” language that removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a situation if possible before using deadly force.

What makes Cook’s statement puzzling is that Harrison fired his gun without the situation even escalating to the level of a fistfight. Yet the District Attorney’s office has found that Harrison was justified in his actions because he believed that Mays had a gun, without making any visual confirmation of the fact.

Mays’ son told the media, “If they do have a weapon, they should like pull out the gun and point it at them and say ‘freeze,' like cops would do. The guy who shot him is very immature...he needs to be ashamed of himself.” Numerous other relatives and friends said that they never knew Mays to be a violent person.

Responding to the District Attorney’s decision to not press charges, Mays’ first wife, Holly Mays, said, “I totally think it was unjustifiable … at least they could have written [Harrison] a ticket, something. I think now people think you can basically open fire in a residential area and say, 'I did it in self-defense.'” Family members are considering a civil lawsuit.

While it was wrong of Mays to confront Harrison, the situation should not have resulted in a fatal shooting. Without the introduction of a firearm into the confrontation by Harrison, the outcome could have ranged from a verbal confrontation to a fistfight. Even given the presence of a handgun, Harrison could have simply brandished his weapon until police arrived, or attempted to move away from Mays. In the end, he chose none of these options, shooting Mays without even giving a verbal warning. The result was an unnecessary death—or, as Steve Gunn from the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah put it, a "sadness, for both the victim and the shooter, because the shooter is going to have to bear that burden for the rest of his life.