In some progressive police departments, new recruits hear a version of this story emphasized during training:
“Always be aware that whenever you answer a call, someone is armed and possibly already leveraged to fire their weapon,” goes the admonishment, often delivered by an experienced firearms instructor.
And who is that person?
Wait for it. “It’s you, the police officer,” cadets are told.
The reminder is the type of introspective analysis the nation demands of law enforcement; to be more aware of their own potential for violence. To ingrain that it is the uniformed officer who could lose control of a situation and end a civilian’s life.
Had police heeded this warning, the lives of so many Black Americans the nation now chants in protest: Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and so many more, some known only to the victims’ family and friends, might have been spared.
But there is another narrative, and many times, it’s an even louder one in an officer’s head.
It spins from this undeniable fact: The U.S. owns more than 40% of the world’s firearms compared to the top 25 countries, according to the Small Arms Survey.
So when police interact with the public via traffic stops, domestic violence calls or entering someone’s home, they’re highly attuned to the possibility that they’re not the only armed individuals.
The prevalence of guns must be a part of any serious call for reform of law enforcement in the U.S. The fact that it isn’t a part of the conversation so far is troubling at best.
I suspect that some of it is due to a hesitation to be viewed as conflating the separate issues of racist law enforcement systems and practices with crime in general.
It’s abhorrent, but some people’s reflexive pushback to Black Lives Matter is to point to gun violence by Black people on Black people, as if intra-racial crime isn’t generally common. It’s a form of victim-blaming, a what-about-ism for lazy intellects.
What’s irrefutable, however, is the tremendous amount of grief and loss due to U.S. gun violence; by civilians and police.
According to Giffords Law Center, of the 36,383 Americans killed with guns each year, 22,274 are gun suicides (61%), 12,830 are gun homicides (35%), 496 are law enforcement shootings (1.4%) and 487 are unintentional shootings (1.3%).
Also, on average, 100,000 Americans are wounded with guns each year.
There are also studies that point to a correlation between a higher prevalence of guns and killings by and of police. Furthermore, higher rates of gun violence exist in states and municipalities with less stringent gun laws.
Shootings that result in death — and those that don’t — influence police policy. Consider the militarization of police. Part of the rationale for obtaining all of those surplus armored vehicles and discarded M-16 rifles is to meet force with force, to give police an upper hand over the firearms they might encounter on the streets.
In reality, this often gives police the aura of the military, a dangerous connotation in a free society.
The other issue that this raises is a pertinent one: Who is viewed as a dangerous gun owner and who isn’t? How many Black and Latino people are killed by police who think they are “reaching for a gun” when it’s a cell phone or some other nebulous movement?
Yet, the rights of militia white folks marching around, preening their right to bear arms unconcealed, is largely tolerated.
But nothing happens in a vacuum. The racism that is twisted into police systems stems from the nation’s. Existing gun control laws themselves have a racist history — as many were initially enacted to keep Black people from owning guns.
Likewise, the nation’s fascination with firearms, embedded into our history and lore, influences every aspect of guns in society. But more firearms do not create a safer nation, despite the outlandish cries and cherry-picked scenarios of a good guy with a gun saving the day. And the people who are supposed to be the good men and women with firearms must continue being held accountable.
The reckoning is a long time coming. But it’s barely begun and ultimately, if we truly want a less violent society, eventually the lens of self-examination coupled with empirical data and research will need to expand far beyond policing.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn
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