Guns + Fear = Tragedy

Getty Images — from Scientific American article on white American men and guns

Been thinking a lot — like everyone else who isn’t living under a rock, I guess — about why heavily-armed, heavily-trained, Kevlar-clad American police officers so easily and so often panic and shoot civilians. Especially civilians of colour. Especially Black civilians.

The history of American semi-apartheid, or in places de facto apartheid, or in places de jure apartheid, explains a lot — about a cultural continuity, an institutional memory, of policing Black people as Untermenschen, undesirables, lesser beings. Many pieces of the toxic jigsaw date from slavery times and subsequent attempts to defend and enforce white supremacy — this is a good moment, for example, to consider the historical roots of the 2nd Amendment in slave-owner realpolitik.

Thanks to BLM, there’s a long-overdue conversation gathering momentum: a serious conversation about slavery and American history, about the deep roots of racism and white supremacist doctrine and its recurrence over decades and centuries. It’s long past time for America to come to its Truth and Reconciliation moment, and police shootings of Black civilians are a key part of that conversation.

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But I think there’s another piece of the “murderous cops” puzzle worth considering. And that is the existential fear that cops experience, in a country where the general population is more heavily armed than any other in the so-called free world. There are more guns than people in the US. The US population is about 4 percent of the world population, yet Americans own about 40 percent of all the privately-held guns in the world.

This is a crazily overarmed society. It is not normal by international standards. It is a scary country in which to be a copper. Heck, it’s just a scary country in which to be.

Cops are paid to deal with unpleasant people, drunk people, violent people, crazy people [actually, they shouldn’t be dealing with crazy people who aren’t immediately dangerous — there are better-qualified and more appropriate professionals for that— but that’s a whole ‘nother topic]. And in the US, they never know if the person they’re about to deal with — including the crazy, drunk, etc.— is armed, possibly with a semi-automatic or automatic weapon.

Cop training now emphasises officer safety above all, instils fear of the civilian population, drills into cadets and trainees the message that their lives are on the line during every single encounter, that anyone may have a gun, that anyone may shoot them, that they must regard every civilian encounter as highly dangerous, potentially lethal. And given the ridiculous number of guns owned by Americans, there’s a grain of truth in all this fear-mongering.

The gun lobby — the gun fetishists plus the gun merchants — have much to answer for. Without their endless battle to “protect our right to bear arms” by resisting any and all restrictions on gun sales and ownership… how many school kids and other innocent bystanders would still be alive today? In America, mass shootings are becoming business-as-usual. “Shooter drills” are becoming a standard component of grade-school curricula, much as “duck and cover” drills were in the 1950’s. Gun violence is increasing, and increasingly normalised.

Meanwhile, cops in this gun-infested society are so jittery and so frightened (despite all their Kevlar and their own increasingly paramilitary weaponry) that they panic and shoot anyone who moves — or doesn’t move — or doesn’t instantly obey — or has some object in their hand that might (to an overheated imagination, anyway) be a gun. The excuses they offer afterwards are so feeble — and so undermining of their own competence — that the only credible explanations are a stone-cold psychopathic hunger for murder, or blind panic. Neither of which well becomes a guardian of the public peace.

Almost one thousand Americans were shot by their own police over the last year; compare the UK, for perspective: .5 per 10 mio people, vs the US at 34.8, right between Angola and Uruguay in international rankings. [We might also compare this number to the 100–300 Americans who are now considered a “normal” annual death toll in mass shootings. Or, alternatively, to the 15,000 or so Americans who die annually from “gun-related violence” — not at the hands of the police, not in mass shootings, and not counting suicides.]

How many of those 1000 police shootings were actually “necessary” — based on a real and immediate threat to an officer’s life? If recent examples are at all representative, very few.

The only thing more dangerous than a man with a gun… is a scared man with a gun. (This old saying goes for women, too.) The gun culture of the US has made cops increasingly scared, and increasingly dangerous.

When you add to this already inflammable mixture the smouldering, never-extinguished coals of American racism, the fear of the Other, the fear of Blackness and of Black men in particular… well, you have what we’re seeing. Cops — who should in theory be guardians of society, brave-calm-and-competent, disciplined and patient, protective of the public — instead are panicking like amateurs and firing wildly at the shadows of their own fear. And they are disproportionately murdering Black people.

Anyone who’s so jittery and terrified that despite her training she can’t remember which holster is her gun and which is her taser — should not be on the streets in a cop car. Anyone who’s so frightened that he sees a thirteen-year-old boy with his hands in the air as a lethal threat, panics, and shoots to kill — should not be on the streets in a cop car. We’re being policed by jumpy, stressed-out scaredy-cats — and it’s not working. The rage of the communities whose family members are being murdered by cops is only building, year on year — making cops more afraid — scared cops do even more stupid, panicky things — this is a vicious cycle that desperately needs interruption.

Aside from their racism (one big hefty aside, I know), one of the drivers of the cops’ inability to see or think clearly in moments of confrontation is their (not unrealistic) assessment that there are too many guns out there — some very powerful — in the hands of too many unstable people. We need to hold cops accountable, we need to disrupt the toxic institutional culture of many (most?) police departments, we need to demilitarise policing, we need to fund social services to handle incidents for which police are inappropriate… and we need some serious gun control legislation. We need to start de-gunning American society. So that officer training doesn’t consist of terrifying the trainees, then arming those terrified people, then letting them loose on communities.

The cops may be scared to death, but it’s civilians who are literally dying from that fear. Reduce the number of guns out there, and that turns at least one knob on the mixing board in the direction marked “sanity”.

Afterthought: there are 800,000 serving (“sworn”) police officers in the US, out of a population of 330 million. So police officers are .2 percent of the US population. If we add up all the non-police murderous gun deaths — call it 15,000 — then add the police-inflicted gun deaths — call it 1000 as of this year — we end up with 16,000 people murdered with guns, of whom 1/16th or 6.25 percent are killed by cops. So it’s fair to say that the sub-population of police are using guns to kill people at a far higher rate than the proportion of the general population that they represent. They are, in fact, significantly more dangerous than the general public (despite the number of guns cherished by the general public and the fear that police have of them). Given that their mission is “to protect and to serve” — ideally, to make sure that malefactors are apprehended and given a fair trial, rather than summarily executed Philippines-style — the statistics seem rather disturbing.

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Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.