Gun Safety, Re-imagined

In the 1990’s, thanks to a successful public information campaign, helmet use among bicyclists increased exponentially. Ironically, head injuries among bicyclists also increased exponentially during the same period, confounding helmet-advocates and even the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Risk-analysts, however, saw what was going on. Bicyclists riding with helmets were feeling an inflated sense of safety, and took bigger risks – and sustained bigger injuries. This false sense of security, which was entirely well-intentioned, ended up enabling the very problem it sought to quell. Though it may come off as a non-sequitur, bear this phenomenon in mind as you read on.

On September 5th, 2014, a London Metropolitan police officer shot 40-year-old Dean Joseph two times; once in the chest, and once in the arm. He succumbed to his wounds on the way to the hospital. At the time of the shooting, Dean was holding his victim – a woman whose home he had broken into – up against a wall at knifepoint.

On September 5th, 2014, 23-year-old Steven Howell was killed by a Dayton, Tennessee Sheriff’s Deputy in the emergency room of the local hospital. Howell had been brought in for injuries stemming from a domestic violence incident, and had taken a gun from one of the two officers escorting him to the hospital before he was shot.

Later at night on September 5th, 2014, 22-year-old Naim Owens succumbed to the gunshot injuries he had sustained during a shoot-out with police in Brooklyn, New York.

The East London police-homicide marked the first shooting death by a police officer in the United Kingdom since Anthony Grainger was killed on March 3rd, 2012. In the US, Howell, Owens, and 76 other individuals were shot and killed by police in September 2014 alone. August of 2014 saw 105 police homicides; October saw 56.

There are clearly discrepancies between the two countries – the population of the US, at almost 319 million, is nearly 5 times larger than the UK’s 64 million. But adjusting for population size and multiplying the number of UK police shooting deaths 5-fold would still only result in 5 deaths in 2014; 0 in 2013; 5 in 2012. Another unassailable dissimilarity lies in the discrepancy of privately owned guns in the US and the UK. The US far outpaces the rest of the Western world in accessibility to (and ubiquity of) gun ownership.

Here’s the really crucial difference: Police in the United States carry guns. (Most) police in the United Kingdom don’t. The issue of guns – and gun deaths – in America has become irreparably intertwined with the defense of the 2nd amendment. The US has the highest rate of gun ownership in the Western world, our circular logic says, therefore our police must be similarly armed. Is it remotely possible to break out of this viscous cycle without making drastic change? No.

In 2013, approximately 5% of the UK police force was given permission to carry a firearm; those who are armed only carry guns in the course of pre-authorized operations. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is not a scenario that would be remotely replicable in the UK: an officer on that kind of patrol would not have been authorized to carry a gun. (There is, however, a growing issue amongst UK police with excessive use of tasers).

Here’s the obvious takeaway: the more often a police officer is armed, the more likely a police officer is to fire a gun. The false sense of security that is at play when all officers are armed, all of the time, is at odds with the reality of how gun violence unfolds in this country. The safety of officers is of paramount importance, as is the safety of our communities. There are undoubtedly a plethora of situations – more so in some cities than others – that necessitate a response from an armed police force. The ability to respond to those situations with the appropriate force wouldn’t go away, it would just become more specialized and pre-authorized. Beginning to reduce the number of always-armed police officers in the US wouldn’t happen summarily. It wouldn’t mean the end of police violence (see: Eric Garner), nor would it mean the end of violence against police. What it would signify is the beginning of a process of de-escalation, a re-affirmation that good policing can – and should – have an exceptionally important positive role to play in a community, and a diminishing sense of adversity between police and the public they serve.

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