OUR VIEW: Time to limit availability of fake guns

To perform their jobs effectively and safely, law enforcement officers must make peace with the notion that one day they might not come home to their loved ones, due to some criminal’s evil deed.

They must also make peace with the potential that one day, a decision made to ensure that happens could be wrong.

Those of us without uniforms will likely never know what either feels like. But Deputy Preston Norman was faced with both on the same day, Sept. 23, 2014, when he fired his weapon four times at 14-year-old Cameron Tillman, whom Norman said was holding what looked like a deadly and powerful pistol but which later proved to be a fake.

As a result of that nightmare moment Wyteika Tillman, the teen’s mother, now forever copes with the immeasurable pain of the worst thing that can happen to any parent, having to bury a child.

A Terrebonne Parish grand jury last week found Norman’s account of the events credible. We present in today’s issue of The Times a story about the tragedy and the decision that resulted. We also make available to readers a redacted copy of the 57-page report from a State Police investigation, upon which the presentation to the grand jury by Assistant District Attorney Carlos Lazarus was based.

The cold words of the report do not do justice to the pain that has resulted from the star-crossed set of circumstances that resulted in the death of, as District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. so aptly stated, “one of our children.”

For Mrs. Tillman many questions remain, and those questions, for her, will never sufficiently be answered. Local officials said the FBI – as often happens in such cases – is conducting an investigation to determine if civil rights laws were violated, although the report, now open to the sunshine as it certainly should be, indicates such a possibility as being slim.

A civil lawsuit is likely to be filed, but even if a settlement is made or the Tillman family prevails, the findings as to criminal culpability will not change.

Our nation has this year and last experienced a new consciousness regarding the question of when, how and why police officers take lives. That there are difficult questions raised is not only to be expected but demanded. License for officers to defend themselves should never be translated into a simple license to kill.

The District Attorney’s choice to take the case to a grand jury made clear that accountability would reign.

That Mrs. Tillman inability to accept the grand jury’s decision is to be expected, and she is deserving of prayers rather than criticism for that. Accepting the decision would mean accepting that the killing of her son, an honor student with athletic prowess, was in some way justified. It is more than most parents would be able to consciously bear.

If anything good can be seen as arising from this tragedy it is that parents, youngsters and public officials must see the danger that is posed by these realistic-looking fake guns that are ubiquitous in our community, our state and our nation.

The rules that govern their manufacture and possession, because they are not considered weapons, allow for future tragedies. Indeed most of the laws that pertain to them are not laws at all, but obscure regulations made by federal agencies.

Orange tips – which the object Cameron Tillman is said to have held in his hand did not have – are required of some fake guns as well as toys. But there are exceptions to that federal rule.

Sheriff Jerry Larpenter has said that federal lawmakers need to look at ways to cut down on the potential for nightmares like the Tillman case, and we agree. We don’t pretend to be wise enough to craft a solution. But perhaps the combined wisdom of a legislative committee, after hearing first-hand the pain that fake guns can cause, can do so.

We pray that they do, absent the hysteria that emerges when the mere suggestion of a change in laws concerning real guns arises. We also pray for Deputy Norman and Cameron Tillman’s bereaved family.

At this point it’s likely all anyone can do.