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Gun Control Needs to Start with the Police!

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Marc Lombardo
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With all of the public discussion of gun violence that has come in the wake of recent mass shootings, not enough attention is being paid to a particular segment of the population that is far more likely to carry a gun than any other. This exceptionally, indeed uniquely, armed group is called: the police.

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It is true that police do not commit the majority of shootings in the United States. Unfortunately, however, gun violence is an all too common form of police violence, which is itself a tragically common feature of many communities throughout the country, as the residents of Anaheim can certainly attest. The facts clearly show that police gun violence is not simply a matter of a few isolated incidents. Police officers are drastically more likely to commit a lethal shooting than the average person--approximately 20 times more likely in fact (607 fatalities from shootings in 2011 by 800,000 law enforcement officers vs. 11,000 fatalities from shootings by the US population of 310,000,000). One might think that, unfortunate as this statistic may be, it is more or less to be expected given the dangerous nature of police work. However, if rules of engagement were followed with regularity--i.e., if police were only using lethal force in situations in which they were in legitimate danger--one would assume that police officers would be fatally shot in approximately equal number to the amount of fatal shootings they commit. This was certainly not the case. In 2011, only 67 police officers were killed in the line of duty by gunshot. In other words, police were nine times more likely to fatally shoot others than they were to be killed by gunshot.

These numbers speak to something that you may have observed with respect to your interactions with law enforcement: just how physically fearful today's cops are of nearly anyone and everyone. Ask a police officer a question of the most innocent sort and the response you'll get will most likely be marked by an aggressive, jumpy, paranoid suspiciousness as if such a state of heightened anxiety were perfectly natural. Imagine what it's like for men of color! Police today routinely approach the communities in which they serve as if they are just as foreign and just as dangerous as Afghanistan. The unjustified, all-pervasive fear that law enforcement project upon their environment in turn provides the basis for their disturbingly common use of preemptive violence. In reality, here's what rules of engagement effectively amount to on the streets of most of our cities: ANY use of force is legitimate as long as there is even the most minuscule chance of a cop being in the position of possibly getting injured.

What is it that makes the people who are supposed to put their bodies on the line to protect us so fearful of injury to the point that they are all too likely to endanger us? This irrational fear is a logical extension of the militarized training and equipment that have become common features of American policing, particularly since 2001. This equipment and training instills a particular mindset that posits that power is reducible to technology. Tasers, pepper spray, less-lethal munitions, handguns, shotguns, rifles, tear gas, batons, shields, bullet-proof vests, helmets, noise weapons. Possessing these extraordinary and diverse technologies of protection/aggression/death in turn breeds fear in the possessor with respect to the weakness of his own body in comparison. He who possesses these technologies knows what they are designed to do to the human body, sees what they do to the bodies of others, and inevitably imagines one's own body as their possible target. The more armor is put on to guard against this fear, the greater the fear becomes for the presence of the armor is itself an indication of the body's vulnerability. In sum: the more munitions, the more armor, the more the body itself seems weak in comparison.

It is this technology-induced bodily cowardliness that so starkly separates today's police and military from the warriors of old whose power stemmed from their confidence in their bodies to hold up to and overcome physical injury. Sword and shield were extensions of the body, effective only when used in concert with the attributes of the battle-tested body. This is not to say that there is anything to romanticize about the power of bodily force, as it was (and still too often is, e.g., with respect to domestic relations) part and parcel of the domination of the physically weaker by the physically stronger. The point is that today's technologies of force result in a fundamentally different attitude towards the body.

Today, technologies of protection/aggression/death are viewed as something alien to and other from the body. In many respects, it was the advent of the gun all those centuries ago that opened the way for this development. The bourgeois liberal merchant class greeted the gun as something of an emancipatory device in that it meant that the physically weaker--provided they had access to the various sorts of credit necessary for commerce--could protect themselves from the physically stronger, hence the 2nd Amendment. Prior to this technological innovation, the landed aristocracy maintained its position in the social order thanks to a loyal warrior class whose power lay first and foremost in their bodily capacities. The enforcement of contracts was and, in the post-gunpowder, bourgeois era, still remains the primary purpose for the majority of acts of physical force. What's changed is the nature of the human body involved in the violence of enforcement as those bodies have increasingly come to rely upon simpler to use and easier to wield technologies of violence.

More or less anybody can shoot a gun. While the defining function of police and military is indeed their role of enforcing contracts through the use of physical force, advances in technologies of aggression/protection/death mean that the particular abilities and capacities of particular human bodies play less and less of a role in instituting this force. In turn, police and military are no longer necessarily definable as the physically strong who use their strength in service to the sovereign.

As physicality became less necessary for the performance of their contract-enforcement function, police and military jobs in turn underwent a transformation into professionalized, bureaucratic careers. Seemingly so little of what the average police officer does today requires a gun--e.g., traffic enforcement, reviewing reports, interviewing witnesses, questioning suspects, harassing young, poor, black, and/or brown people-- and yet without guns, police would scarcely be free to do the work they do. What would a police officer be without a gun? Some curiously self-righteous cross between a meter maid, a security guard, a paralegal, and a social worker? If carrying a gun is so necessary for any of these duties, why isn't it also routine for others who perform similar roles for similar populations? Could it be that social workers are simply more physically courageous people than police officers?

If police were legitimately interested in earning back the respect of the public they serve, they would insist upon refusing to carry guns. Implicit in every interaction with the police at present is the tacit threat made by the presence of their guns: "I could kill you if I wanted to and there's not a damn thing that you could do to stop me." Might it make their job more dangerous if police didn't carry guns? Yes, it probably would. But, as the above statistics show, at present police pose a greater danger to the public than any danger they face in the course of conducting their job. Also, it is important to keep in mind that police work is at present a far less dangerous job (in terms of fatalities per year divided by number of workers) than many other jobs such as mining, fishing, and logging and it would likely remain so even if police did not routinely carry guns. In any event, given that the number of gunshot deaths caused by police is so much higher than the number of police deaths from gunshot, disarming police would almost certainly result in a significant number of saved lives.

The recent push for gun-control legislation has provoked intense responses from persons who feel that their high-capacity semi-automatics offer an essential and irreplaceable form of protection from the government. Now, statistically, we know that it's much more likely that gun owners will injure themselves (and/or friends and family) with their guns than they are to ever need them for protection. Nevertheless, the number of gunshot deaths that police inflict every year shows that those who fear the government are not entirely without justification. Perhaps many people who fear violence from the government would be willing to give up some of their more deadly guns if the police gave up theirs.

If we want a less violent society, someone has to take the first step. The more technologies of death that we surround ourselves with, the greater our fears of one another and the more those fears are justified. Many of us go through our whole lives without guns and find that the less we fear other human beings, the less is their fear of us, and the less cause we have to fear. Police can show their courage and set a powerful example for how to create peace in the world by refusing to carry their guns on duty. By doing so, they would almost certainly find themselves the recipients of much greater respect and cooperation from the community. And they could grow these dividends further by doing something as simple as living in the communities in which they serve.

There is no reason that disarmament has to happen for all police all at once. Disarmament is a process that can take place over time. Perhaps, for the time being, given the pervasive presence of guns in our society, there may still be a need for SWAT teams to carry guns in order to deal with particularly extreme situations. However, at present, a great deal of harm is caused by police who are trained and equipped to respond to the most quotidian of encounters as if they are in imminently life-threatening danger. Any police officer anywhere has the opportunity to send a powerful message demonstrating his or her desire to live in a less violent society by refusing to carry a gun on routine duty and encouraging his or her fellow officers to do the same. Tragically, responding to a police culture in which violence and corruption are the rule rather than the exception, Christopher Dorner  had no idea that he had such a choice.

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Independent scholar, activist, essayist, poet, and public intellectual. I write about and agitate around issues surrounding economics, education, social inequality, food politics, and white supremacy. I come from the perspective of believing that (more...)
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