Police shootings are a gun control issue

With the civil unrest that has erupted in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, along with all of the news coverage and commentary that has accompanied it, I am surprised how few Americans see the connection between police shootings and the absence of gun control in the United States. By now it has become fairly clear to everyone that school shootings are an inevitable byproduct of the proliferation and easy availability of guns. But Americans have not been as quick to draw the connection between police shootings and the fact that so many American civilians are armed. There has been a lot of lamentation about the “militarization” of police forces, but surprisingly few commentators have pointed out the simple fact that American police are constantly afraid of getting shot. It may not be at the forefront of their minds, but it is something that informs every aspect of how they interact with the public.

Instead of making gun control the issue, many commentators have been inclined to minimize or dismiss the concerns the American officers have about dealing with an armed public – as though their fears were just a lame excuse for bad behaviour. One often comes across the suggestion that the whole problem would go away if police just had better training, or were less racist. Personally, I don’t see how that could be. It seems to me that an inevitable consequence of living in a society where there are over 300 million guns in circulation is that the police will be extremely suspicious, nervous and trigger-happy. As the United States moves towards the NRA’s ideal of a totally armed society, militarization of the police will be a natural and inevitable part of that development. Unfortunately, many Americans have become so accustomed to the way that things are in their country they forget, or perhaps are even not aware, that things do not have to be this way.

When I lived in Chicago, at least once a week while walking down the street, I would look at someone and think to myself “I wonder if he has a gun?” Like when you would see a fight break out on the street, or on the el, you would think to yourself “Are these people going to start shooting?” (I wasn’t just being paranoid, lots of people in Chicago do have guns. For example, I found out that the teenagers who used to hang around on the corner in front of my building had guns – after one afternoon they got shot at by some kids from another school, and promptly returned fire. A 12-year old girl died that day, shot in the head, right on the sidewalk outside my front door.)

I’ve been back in Canada now for almost 20 years, and I can honestly say that during this time, the thought “I wonder if he has a gun?” has not spontaneously occurred to me even once. It is just not a thought that pops into my mind. Intellectually I know that it’s possible – some people do have guns – it’s just such an incredibly small probability that I, like most other Canadians, ignore it entirely. For me, this adds up to a pretty significant difference in the mental environment, and it affects the way that I act – particularly on public transit, or when walking around at night. It therefore would not surprise me to learn that it has a huge effect on the way that the police go about their work as well.

This is pretty anecdotal, but I’ve been pulled over for speeding by the RCMP in Canada, and I’ve been pulled over by a state trooper in the United States. The two experiences were like night and day. The RCMP officer was totally relaxed, and ridiculously friendly – like I was supposed to be happy to see him, even though he was writing me a ticket. The state trooper, by contrast, was ridiculously tense and hostile. I actually thought he was joking at first, sauntering over with his hand on his gun, with the whole “keep your hands on the steering wheel” routine. In retrospect I realized the crucial difference between them had everything to do with guns. The RCMP officer wasn’t even thinking about the possibility that I might shoot him. The state trooper wasn’t expecting me to shoot him, but he had clearly contemplated the possibility, and was guarding against it.

Or consider something like “no-knock” raids, which American civil libertarians have been getting all exercised about. Again, this seems to me to be an inevitable consequence of the proliferation of guns in America. If you expect people inside a house to have guns, then you can’t really expect the police to ring the doorbell before coming in. The inevitable consequence is that mistakes get made, police smash in the wrong house, or worse, it’s the wrong house and a firefight breaks out because the people in the house don’t realize it’s the police.

Looking around a bit, it seems to be hard to find good statistics on police shootings. International comparisons would no doubt be instructive. There were a few headlines in 2012, when it was revealed that police in Germany had fired a grand total of 85 bullets over the course of the year, in all incidents, in the entire country, including warning shots. Commentators pointed out that American police had at various times fired more than 85 bullets at a single suspect.

Offhand, it would seem to me that the recent enactment of “concealed carry” laws in various U.S. states provides an opportunity to study the impact on police behaviour of recreating “Wild West”-like conditions. Of course, police have been expecting members of the criminal underclass to be carrying concealed weapons for a while, so legalization of the practice may not have that much effect. Still, it might provide some purchase on the question.

Anyhow, it seems to me that all the focus on race is unlikely to do much to prevent future police shootings, whereas a focus on gun control might. I suppose this may seem like a bit of a leap, since Michael Brown was not armed. The point, however, has to do not with a specific interaction, but with the fact that American police are trigger-happy in general, and it’s simply not reasonable to expect this to change, as long as so many American civilians are running around with guns. More guns creates more fear, more fear creates more violence (and, of course, more violence leads to more guns). It’s all part of the same race to the bottom. Luckily, “reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement…”


Police shootings are a gun control issue — 1 Comment

  1. The Hobbesian logic to which you refer is pretty straightforward. Of course, police training and the larger issue of racial tension are both significant issues that need to be addressed. But fear, uncertainty, and lack of trust are basic causes of quarrel, I agree. They give anyone a reason to attack first, in the name of safety. If anyone could be armed, then everyone is a potential threat.

    You mention the relevance of statistics. Here are some interesting data, reported recently in the Economist. The FBI collects data on so-called “justifiable” killings by police in the United States. In 2012 there were 410 such killings, 409 of them with guns. Keep in mind that reporting of this data is voluntary (!), so the actual number is likely higher. Last year in the US, 30 police officers were shot and killed.

    Meanwhile, last year in Britain the number of fatal police shootings was zero. In fact, British police fired their weapons a grand total of three times. The Economist agrees with your explanation: the reason British police shootings are so infrequent is that guns are so rare.

    I do have one question: Does anyone have reliable Canadian statistics?