Imagine for a moment that you live in a world free of racism. In this pretend world, you are a police officer. As such, you are issued a firearm. This firearm is meant to be used as sparingly as possible, only when your life or the life of someone else is immediately threatened. Sometimes bad guys are really, really bad, and police like you have to make fast, difficult decisions about when to use their firearm. You joined the police force with pure intentions. You truly want to serve and protect your community. The idea of killing someone, even a “bad guy,” even in defense of your own or someone else’s life, makes your stomach turn.
Now imagine that, in this racism-free fantasy world, the amount of people you interact with is far outnumbered by the amount of guns those people have—you are literally outgunned by the people you have been sworn to protect. In any situation, at any given moment, you may have a loaded firearm pointed in your face. You can’t know who has a gun and who doesn’t have a gun, because the law says that almost anyone can carry a concealed weapon. There is no registry, no way to know ahead of time what you’re walking into.
On top of this, you operate with countless stories of your fellow officers gunned down in the line of duty. You’ve watched video after video of it. The danger has been drilled into you. Maybe you even witnessed a fellow officer get shot.
I can’t imagine it would be possible for you—for anyone, really—to do this job without being constantly influenced by fear and paranoia. Wouldn’t your only choice be to behave as though every single person you come into contact with has a loaded gun on them?
Now add racism back in, because reality.
In 2016, a Minnesota officer pulled over Philando Castile, supposedly because Castile matched the description of someone “involved in a robbery” and with minutes had shot Mr. Castile five times at point-blank range. We already know that unarmed Black men are killed by police at rates alarmingly higher than other ethnicities, but add an extra gun to the mix and a police officer is quite literally free to murder with impunity—the officer in Castile’s case was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter.
Mr. Castile did absolutely nothing wrong. He did everything he was told. He was polite. He broke no laws. He informed the officer of his legally held weapon exactly as he was supposed to. He told the officer that he was reaching for his wallet, not his gun.
Cops are afraid of suspects with guns, and they are racist. They are scared of Black people—whether they’re suspects or not—who have guns. And don’t @ me with “not all cops.” Unless a police officer is vocally advocating to put an end to systemic racism in policing, that police officer is complicit.
Why are cops pro-gun rights anyway?
But let’s put racist policing aside again for a moment. Why don’t police speak up in favor of gun legislation? Why are they, in fact, pro-gun? Why in the actual fuck are police okay with being outgunned by their communities? I began research on this piece optimistic that I would find evidence of a reasonable percentage of police officers being pro-gun regulation. I found the opposite.
A famous and oft-quoted 2013 survey by Police One claimed that an overwhelming majority of police are in favor of concealed carry for “civilians who have not been convicted of a felony and/or not been deemed psychologically/medically incapable.”
One article at Police One claims, “What checks the sociopath from completing his act is fear. Fear of the unknown or known gun carrier who is going to punch his ticket to hell right then and right there. This has an immediate effect on reducing violent criminal activity.” But this assumption ignores the fact that six out of ten gun deaths are suicides, that the majority of murders are not committed by psychopaths, and that states with the highest levels of firearm ownership have higher rates of violent crime committed with a firearm.
Police assumptions about the causes of gun violence are telling. In the Police One survey, 1.6% of police officers surveyed believed gun crime had any relation to economic factors or income inequality. 38.1% believed gun crime was a result of a “decline in parenting and family values.” This survey has been presented as scientific—a “so there” in the face of advocates for stricter gun legislation. Except what is it, really? It’s a survey of the opinions of a highly cynical group of people—opinions based on anecdotal experiences. It’s not scientific. It didn’t study the actual causes of gun violence, only the incredibly biased opinions of the people who most frequently witness it.
A Quora thread asked how police really feel about gun control, and reading it made me sick to my stomach. The general consensus was that taking away civilians’ guns, or forcing them to register their firearms, always leads to a government takeover. “Look at history,” they’ll tell you, citing a couple of examples of extreme cases even as they conveniently leave out the many centuries-old democratic countries with strict gun laws, low rates of violent crime, and the happiest citizens in the world. Police have convinced themselves that an unarmed public leads to an authoritarian regime and total loss of citizen rights, every time. And they simply don’t believe that stricter gun legislation does anything to curb violent crime.
The truth is, police attitudes on gun legislation fly in the face of science.
Study after study shows that shootings—all kinds of shootings—are higher in places with looser gun laws. A 2017 study found that states with stricter gun laws had lower rates of fatal police shootings. A 2018 study found the same—police shooting deaths are “significantly and positively correlated with levels of household gun ownership, even after accounting for the other explanatory variables.”
Not only that, but police themselves are at greater risk of being fatally shot in states with higher rates of gun ownership. A 2015 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that from 1996 to 2010, an increase by 10% in firearm ownership in a state correlated to ten additional officer homicides.
Given these statistics, it’s baffling to me that police are not on the side of stricter gun legislation. How is it possible to effectively and peacefully police a community whose guns outnumber yours both in number and power? How does one approach a volatile situation—or even a relatively docile one—with a calm mindset when there is a 43% probability that any member of their community is armed as well as or better than they are? How does one interact peacefully in a community that operates in a constant state of paranoia and fear, of its police, of its government, of its own citizens?
I have said that we must defund police, and I believe that still. But how can we achieve that goal—rerouting funding to social outreach programs meant to prevent criminal behavior, installing mental health services in place of police intervention, and demilitarizing police—when the community being policed is itself so heavily militarized? Is it even possible to be a “good cop” when the citizens you’re sworn to protect outgun you? The evidence says no, it’s definitely not, and if we don’t address America’s obsession with guns—indeed, American law enforcement’s obsession with guns—it will be near impossible to address America’s problem of excessive force in policing.
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