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Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police

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On February 5, 2015, Jeremy Lett was physically attacked, then shot in the torso five times while walking outside his apartment. He died in the hospital the next day. His attacker, David Stith, had a history of violent, erratic behavior – at one point a little over a year earlier, Stith entered a Girl Scouts of America office and began “acting aggressively and screaming obscenities”. On February 27, a grand jury cleared Stith of all wrongdoing in the shooting.

David Stith was (and still is) a police officer.

There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about gun violence. There’s also a lot of talk about police brutality. Why, then, are the two issues raised together so rarely? In most instances, police violence is gun violence, and in a significant percentage of cases, gun violence is police violence. According to the Guardian, over one-thousand people were shot and killed by the police in 2015. In that same year, there were a little over eleven-thousand gun homicides. What this means is that about one in every eleven gun homicides was committed by a police officer. One in eleven. What that means is that any serious discussion of reducing gun violence in the U.S. needs to include proposals to reform the police. To address the first, we need to address the second.

The mentality behind the conservative myth of the “good guy with a gun” is fundamentally the same as the one that leads people to want the police armed. At best, a police officer is just a good guy with a gun, a badge, and more leeway to get away with it if he makes a mistake. Here’s the problem with the “good guy with a gun” – whether or not that guy happens to be a police officer: “just shoot him” is very rarely the solution to any problem. Indeed, responding to a gunman by shooting back can often make the situation worse – as gun control advocates have been quick to point out. Examples of innocent bystanders shot by “good guys” trying to defend themselves abound – Tremain Hall, Marco Candeleria, Willard Ross, etc. In many cases, the police have done the exact same thing – in one particularly tragic instance, a police officer shot and killed six-year old Jeremy Mardis after his father allegedly backed his car into the officer’s.

So, here’s what I’m getting at with the link between gun policy and police reform; here’s where policy proposals about the two can intersect: much of the time, police officers do not need to be armed. Resource officers, who work in schools throughout the country, probably do not need to carry guns regularly. Many on the left have (rightly) derided perrenial conservative proposals to arm teachers – why are so many of those same people willing to accept almost exactly the same thing when the person with a gun is a police officer? If you want to keep guns out of our schools, why not start with the police? Other cases where the police probably don’t need to carry guns include dispatches on calls related to mental health – in several cases, calls to the police by the suicidal have ended with a police officer shooting the person they were supposed to help. For reasons that are probably obvious, this discourages people in crisis from calling the police. Disarming the police removes the risk and encourages people who need help to seek it.

It’s important to note that disarming the police is a policy that’s already been put into practice elsewhere: in the United Kingdom, only a small, specially-trained minority of the police carry guns. Although the U.K. has almost totally banned civilian handgun possession since 1997, its policy of unarmed police dates back much further than that – in fact, the only two places (in the U.K.) where police have ever been armed as a matter of course are Northern Ireland during the Troubles and, before that, Ireland under British occupation (Ireland established its own, unarmed police force soon after it gained independence). On the British mainland, the public’s pushed back against the idea of arming the police too strenuously for the idea to ever be put into practice – with good reason; as the examples above show, police patrolling the streets with guns pose a great risk to the public. What’s true in the U.K. is true in the U.S. America needs to rethink its gun policy, especially when it comes to the police. One more Jeremy Lett, or Tamir Rice, or Michael Brown is one too many.

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