It’s time for police officers to start demanding gun laws that could end up saving their own lives
By Robert Wilson
February 29, 2016
When we send our soldiers, spies, and mercenaries into dangerous situations, we have and should have high expectations for how they will behave. Murder, rape, and pillage—the dark acts of soldiery in wartime—are heinous crimes even when our own soldiers commit them, and lesser acts of cruelty and destruction are also intolerable. Although it would be naïve to think that we prosecute more than a fraction of such crimes, that we prosecute them at all speaks to our values and to the standards we have for the behavior of our soldiers. Still, if we are honest about what war is and what can reasonably be expected of those we expose to the boredom, tension, and danger of combat, then we know that criminal acts are inevitable, and that when we send people to kill our enemies, innocent people will also die or be exposed to horrible injury or loss. Those who commit the felonies and misdemeanors of war are of course responsible for them, and deserve to be condemned and punished. But the rest of us who are not exposed to danger can’t wash our hands of the consequences or profess to be shocked when shocking crimes are committed under the pressures of soldiering.
In the past two or three decades, we have increasingly exposed the civilians we pay to police and protect us to conditions approaching those into which we interject our soldiers in wartime. Partly this is due to our national security fixation since 9/11, resulting in big-city police departments with antiterrorism units that rival those of entire countries, and in the militarization of police departments large and small, with the special uniforms, weapons, and materiel we might formerly have associated with National Guard units. The relentless emphasis on security, the evidence that the next mass shooting can happen anywhere, the hot focus of the media on each outburst of violence, and the political necessity of making people feel safer than they are—all of these factors create for civilian law enforcers expectations similar to those that soldiers and their commanders experience. The stress produced by these expectations is one thing the police must live with, but the danger they face as they do their jobs in a militarized environment is even more consequential.
Beginning well before 9/11, Second Amendment absolutism began to make the accessibility, variety, and sheer number of powerful weapons pervasive throughout our society. Back in the late 1960s, it was possible to conclude that gun violence was essentially a black, inner-city problem, and the Gun Control Act of 1968 was intended to block the flow of cheap handguns known in racially tinged jargon as Saturday night specials. A quarter-century later, the 1994 federal assault weapons ban recognized the increasing prevalence and danger to society of military-style weapons and ammunition. It prevented the manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all publicly supported the bill, which Bill Clinton signed into law. The ban lasted 10 years and expired. An attempt by President Obama to pass a new ban on assault weapons after the Sandy Hook massacre failed a Senate vote in 2013. A year ago, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives proposed a ban on a certain type of armor-piercing bullet that has been legal to use in semiautomatic rifles. When President Reagan signed a bill banning similar sorts of bullets in 1986, he referred to these munitions as “so-called cop-killer bullets, which pose an unreasonable threat to law enforcement officers who use soft body armor.” The ATF proposed to add the currently legal bullet to the ban because it can now be used in a concealable semiautomatic pistol, making it more dangerous to the police. But the ATF reversed itself even before a month-long comment period was up because the National Rifle Association mustered so many negative responses: of a total of 80,000, “the vast majority” were critical, according to the ATF. More than half the members of the House and of the Senate also spoke in opposition to the proposal.
Is there a connection between a citizenry armed with military-style weapons and the appalling acts of violence committed by some cops that have been widely publicized and rightly criticized? Every law enforcement officer working today knows that any routine traffic stop, delivery of a warrant or court order, or response to a domestic disturbance anywhere in the country involving people of any race or age can put them face to face with a weapon. Guns are everywhere, not just in the inner city. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that half as many black households as white own guns, half as many urbanites own guns as do rural people, and those under 30 are far less likely to own a gun than those over 50. As the Black Lives Matter movement makes clear, it is impossible to take race out of a discussion of police violence, but it is also true that if a cop or deputy leaves the station house or sheriff’s office anywhere in this country, whatever the racial or economic composition of the place where he or she works, the fear of being harmed and the tension this causes are always present.
Most police officers handle this daily threat as we expect them to, acting calmly and rationally, just as they are trained to behave in tense situations. But fear brings out the irrational, and racism is one of the irrationalities quickest to rise to the surface. Although we have a right to expect our law enforcers to be better than we are, to be more cool-headed and evenhanded, to check their prejudices at the door as they go out on their shift, we must recognize, given the stress and potential danger to which they are constantly exposed, that like the soldiers who fight in our name, the cops we pay to protect us are not all going to behave honorably. How much greater is our share of the blame when we allow our streets, residences, businesses, and in some places even our schools and churches to bristle with dangerous weapons—when we choose not to do everything we can to keep police officers as safe as possible as they go about their jobs?
One weapon that has lost much of its power in this country is the force of argument. Those who believe that the Second Amendment does not apply to individuals are not going to change the minds of, or have their minds changed by, those who believe that the Second Amendment means the government has little authority to restrict a citizen’s right to bear arms. So perhaps it is also naïve to think that a plea to make cops safer is going to change passionately held positions, even when the issue at hand is a sensible measure like restricting gun show loopholes on background checks.
Can anything clear away the impasse? Does any person or group of people have the power, the respect, or the moral standing to make things even a little saner? To me, saner would mean closing the background check loopholes for those who buy weapons at gun shows or on the Internet, making it harder for people with mental illness to buy guns, restoring the ban on semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity magazines, encouraging the development of smart guns that can be fired only by the owner (which would protect cops whose guns are taken from them, a major cause of police deaths), and funding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence as a public health matter (something that Congress stopped the agency from doing in 1996 after the NRA suggested it was pushing for gun control). But that’s just my list.
Who could advocate successfully for these modest measures, or for any measures whatsoever, especially those specifically designed to make the police, and by extension the rest of us, safer? Not President Obama or other political leaders, clearly; not Michael Bloomberg with his billions; not the families of the many victims of gun violence; not an electorate that polls show vastly favors certain measures; and not even the police chiefs of major cities, who met in Washington, D.C., last summer and called for, according to The Washington Post, “more stringent gun laws, including harsher penalties for gun crimes and the use of high-capacity magazines.”
But this last group strikes me as having the best chance to make something happen. Not just chiefs of big-city departments but those involved in law enforcement from top to bottom. Police officers have the most to gain from sensible attempts to restrict access to dangerous weapons and munitions, and to reduce their numbers. Because they put themselves at risk each day, they have the moral authority to advocate for what will make them safer. Many of us who would like to see smarter gun laws are among the growing majority of Americans who do not own guns for hunting or sport shooting or self-defense and thus have less connection to the culture of gun ownership than previous generations did. But cops know guns and gun culture. In fact, there are police officers who oppose gun control, and some sheriffs (who are of course elected, not appointed) have said they would refuse to enforce certain new gun measures—although the term gun control means different things to different people, and polls suggest that most cops support at least some items from my wish list. And if all of those we pay to enforce our laws created, en masse, a wish list of their own, it would be hard for critics to make the slippery slope argument—the assertion that these modest steps would only be first steps because the police want to take away our weapons and repeal the Second Amendment. Nobody this side of the NRA leadership could really believe that to be true.
We need a national convention of law enforcement officials and officers, including police chiefs, police union heads, sheriffs, and deputies; the dozens of federal agencies with police powers ranging from the FBI, ATF, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Customs and Border Protection to the National Park Service and Bureau of Prisons; state police and the National Guard—everyone who carries a weapon to protect us and is at risk from weapons legally or illegally possessed. Groups representing other types of first responders, such as fire and rescue, might also participate, since they are often put at risk. The purpose of the convention would be to see what measures these groups could agree upon and to convince the rest of us that the present situation can be improved. A convention of sufficient size and scope could get the message across, and it could give political cover to elected officials and potential candidates who are willing to buck NRA intransigence for changes that large majorities of Americans would like to see. A state senator running for reelection who has been targeted by the NRA could tell voters that she values the collective wisdom of our cops over the wishes of gun lobbyists. If this possibility gave courage to even a few politicians in the middle who would like to vote with their conscience and their constituencies but are afraid of NRA backlash, many narrow votes in state legislatures and Congress could be turned around.
The sorts of changes that cops are likely to support won’t in themselves stop mass murders or terrorist plots, won’t keep guns out of the possession of all mentally ill people, criminals, or those who deal weapons to them. Still, these measures are bound to save the lives of some policemen. And if they make cops feel safer when they do their jobs and if that makes the small percentage of police officers who have the capacity to behave irrationally comfortable enough to keep control of their emotions more often, wouldn’t this improve the lives of those protecting us, improve the lives of their families, improve the lives, black and otherwise, of those who come into contact with the police? And ultimately, wouldn’t it make us all safer?
Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.