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By the Numbers: Is Private Gun Ownership Responsible for Police Militarization?

AUGUST 21, 2014 by DANIEL J. BIER

Are private guns to blame for police militarization and racial tensions with cops? That’s the conclusion of Adam Winkler, a Huffington Post blogger and law professor at UCLA. In the wake of a police officer shooting an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, Winkler argues that private gun ownership is a major culprit for the tensions between citizens and cops.

The problems of racial harassment and police militarization are exacerbated by the fact that America has a heavily-armed civilian population. ... Whatever one's personal views about guns, there is no denying their presence in every American city, from Philadelphia to Ferguson. Nor should we fail to recognize the profound impact this has on law enforcement.

Because there are so many guns out there, police officers are trained to live in fear of the very people they are supposed to protect and serve. ... At training academies throughout the nation, new recruits are taught that cop-killers need two things: a will to kill and an opportunity to act. There's little an officer can do about will ... Officers can, however, limit the opportunities for a cop-killer to act by being prepared and quick to defend themselves.

He further contends that police militarization is actually in part the result of private gun ownership: “The Brown protests have also set off a debate about militarization of the police since 9/11. That militarization is partially a result of our heavily-armed civilian population. The armored vehicles that have become the symbol of militarization are being purchased by law enforcement agencies to protect officers against gunfire.”

There are many problems with this argument, but first let me note that the armored vehicles Winkler mentions, such as MRAPs, are designed to protect soldiers from landmines and IEDs in wartime, not to protect peace officers from gunfire. They are mine-resistant, not bullet-resistant, vehicles. If guns are really the concern, “overkill” just doesn’t even cut it here.

But the biggest issue with Winkler’s claim is that widespread private gun ownership far predated police militarization. Large numbers of private citizens have owned firearms throughout American history.

Moreover, gun ownership in the United States has been declining, both before and throughout the process of militarizing law enforcement. The 1980s saw early stirrings of it, with the spread of SWAT teams and Reagan-era “tough on crime” policies. It grew in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration, which authorized the DoD’s 1033 program, expanding and formalizing the process for giving military gear to police. Finally, after 9/11, militarization took off in earnest, with two wars, paranoia about terrorism, a booming defense industry, and billions of dollars in Homeland Security money to drive it.

Meanwhile, rates of gun ownership throughout the United States dropped or stagnated. Winkler drops the oft-quoted and often misunderstood statistic that there are “320 million guns in the United States, approximately one per person,” but apparently doesn’t recognize that this stat doesn’t mean everyone gets a gun. (A good way to check: Look around you. Do you see any guns? No? Okay, myth busted.) Today, the actual rate of gun ownership is just 34 percent, down from an average of over 52 percent in the 1970s.

Not only is gun ownership down, so is crime—dramatically so. Starting in 1990, and continuing through recessions, terrorist attacks, and wars, crime has fallen. Murder, rape, robbery, assault—even property crimes—are all down. Cops toting .50 caliber machine guns and driving landmine-resistant vehicles cannot be responding to an epidemic of violence, because one simply doesn’t exist.

But even if far fewer people own guns and commit crimes than did so in the past, it’s still possible that police officers are uniquely under threat in recent years. Maybe killings, assaults, and injuries of police are on the rise. But they’re not.

In every way, this theory fails to align with the facts. Not only is gun ownership down, but so are crime and attacks on police. Private gun ownership is not responsible for militarization, racial profiling, or tensions with police.

But Winkler is right about one thing: Police officers are being taught to be paranoid about citizens and guns, and that fear is being channeled against minorities, from ATF stings targeted at poor blacks and Hispanics, to New York’s racist stop-and-frisk program, to New Jersey’s felony prosecution of a single mom who tried to do the right thing.

But the reason isn’t that there is more of a threat than there used to be. It’s that people are being systematically misinformed—by reporting like Winkler’s—about the risks they actually face. Telling poor minorities that hostilities with police are really partly their fault—and that if they would just give up their guns, everything would be okay—is not just absurd, it’s actively harmful.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

October 2014

ABOUT

DANIEL J. BIER

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian. He writes on issues relating to science, skepticism, and economic freedom, focusing on the role of evolution in social and economic development.

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Heavily-armed police and their supporters will tell you they need all those armored trucks and heavy guns. It's a dangerous job, not least because Americans have so many guns. But the numbers just don't support these claims: Policing is safer than ever--and it's safer than a lot of common jobs by comparison. Daniel Bier has the analysis. Plus, Iain Murray and Wendy McElroy look at how the Feds are recruiting more and more Americans to do their policework for them.
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