Editorial: Hand gestures aren’t hand guns
You have a right to bear arms.
But maybe not hands.
On Tuesday, a state appellate court decided not to overturn the disorderly conduct conviction of Stephen Kirchner, 64, of Lancaster County.
Kirchner walked past a neighbor’s home. The man made an obscene gesture at him. He returned the favor by pointing his finger and cocking his thumb like a gun.
That was what got the police involved. Not because the neighbor involved in the exchange contacted them. No, a witness called 911 saying the June 2018 incident left him feeling “extremely threatened.”
Let’s be clear about the gesture. This is the same thing little kids playing cowboy or police or soldier have done since before the advent of Super Soakers or Nerf arsenals or even cap guns.
It’s exactly the same thing you might do to zing a rubber band across the room at your sister when your mom’s not looking. You might place the same fingers in the same position on your forehead to call someone a loser. You might aim them at your own head behind your boss’s back in a particularly trying staff meeting.
There may be issues with all those uses. A parent might not want a kid to play with any guns, even the natural ones on either hand. Calling another student a loser might get someone sent to the principal’s office for bullying. The frustrated gun-to-the-temple could be painful for someone who has been touched by suicide — or it might get you fired if your boss sees it.
But what it should not be, in and of itself, is illegal. Pointing it at another person can be because of its inherent threat of harm. A word isn’t illegal. Directing certain words at a person can be because they could presage or promise that harm. A hand gesture should be no different.
What it requires is context, as with any exchange. “I’m going to kill you!” is an obvious threat, unless it’s an excited utterance from a friend surprised with a party. “Beat him!” is alarming unless you are talking about hockey fans shouting about a face-off.
Our society seems to have lost the capacity for context. People live at a threat level prepared for anything to be meant in the worst possible interpretation. Perhaps this is how children holding toy guns have ended up shot and killed.
There is a desperate need for common sense and critical thinking, on all sides. Pointing a gun-shaped hand at a neighbor isn’t a good idea. But neither is making it a crime.