The shooting death of 15-year-old James Anthony Means, of Charleston, and everything that followed checked a lot of boxes for what is lamentably an all-too-familiar and distinctly American tragedy.
Means, a black teenager, was shot and killed by William Ronald Pulliam, a white man in his mid-60s, in 2016. It didn’t appear to be an act of self-defense. In fact, according to reports, Means was shot twice after the two had a couple of verbal altercations outside Pulliam’s residence on Washington Street.
After the shooting, Pulliam, according to police records, said, “The way I look at it, that’s another piece of trash off the street.”
Many were justifiably outraged at such a horrific act. Others rushed to Pulliam’s defense, and attempted to smear the reputation of the victim, as if that somehow made the homicide justifiable.
To top it off, Pulliam used a gun he shouldn’t have had. A 2013 domestic violence conviction in Kanawha County barred Pulliam from owning a firearm. Only after the shooting was he accused of lying on federal forms in order to purchase a .380 revolver. He bought the gun at Gander Mountain.
Legal proceedings afterward were bumpy. Pulliam was originally ruled incompetent to stand trial. In December 2018, he was deemed competent, and Pulliam pleaded guilty to second-degree murder nine months after that.
Pulliam then attempted to have the plea revoked, claiming in an August letter to a judge that police and prosecutors had falsified evidence to frame him. A September letter to the same judge negated the first, with Pulliam saying he wanted to keep the deal he had.
While still facing federal firearms charges, Pulliam died in custody at the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson, Kentucky, last week. Authorities have not confirmed the cause of death, but Means’ mother told the Gazette-Mail she had been informed it was a suicide. She said she felt some standard of justice had been met, but also lamented she wouldn’t be able to face her son’s killer at sentencing.
It’s too soon to say what, if anything, could’ve been done to prevent Pulliam’s death while in jail. But looking at the rest of the case, there were places where the entire chain of events could’ve been halted.
Would Pulliam have simply gotten a gun someplace else if he was denied the purchase at Gander Mountain? Maybe. If more thorough background checks had been conducted, maybe it would have discouraged Pulliam from trying to get a gun, given his criminal history.
Most importantly, the entire tragedy could have been avoided if Pulliam hadn’t responded to an unpleasant encounter by retrieving a gun and shooting Means. It’s clear from Pulliam’s own actions and statements at the time that he didn’t grasp the ramifications of what he’d done. Means was “trash,” and he had been dealt with. This is the rot at the heart of so much senseless violence not just in West Virginia, but the entire country.
There are a very limited number of situations where the appropriate response is to fire a gun, and yet that seems to be the solution so many immediately turn to out of anger, fear or hatred. There is something fundamentally broken with conflict resolution for many in this country. Yes, sometimes it is a mental health issue, but it’s just as often a disproportionate response to some perceived sense of belittlement by a particular person or some societal group.
Re-evaluating a given situation and the proper response to anger is just as necessary in the United States today as expanded background checks and red flag laws.