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Guns don’t kill people — but they do get people killed

Since the 1960s, social psychologists have documented a “weapons effect,” whereby the mere presence of a weapon increases aggression in people.

Guns underlie the very tension between police and communities in America.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

To end discussion about gun control before it even begins, people will say, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” We’ve all seen this NRA mantra of proximate causation emblazoned on bumper stickers or celebrated on social media. But since last week started with the shooting of a plainclothes policeman in New York and ended with the murder of two police officers during a traffic stop in Mississippi, the slogan needs an update: If guns don’t kill people, they most certainly get people killed.

densley photo
James Densley

Guns underlie the very tension between police and communities in America. Since the 1960s, social psychologists have documented a “weapons effect,” whereby the mere presence of a weapon increases aggression in people, particularly people already aroused, say after a foot chase. There are some 300 million guns in circulation in America — approximately one per person. Is it any wonder that the most benign police-civilian encounters turn angry? Hulk angry.

Not every American is armed, but potentially they are. Likewise, not every American is dangerous, but because they’re armed, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Selling military-grade equipment to cops to keep them one step ahead of the criminals is an entire industry. Police officers are conditioned to enter every situation with confrontational tension and fear; rightly so, events this week confirm. But it’s exhausting. It’s one reason cops have such high rates of suicide, alcoholism and divorce.

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As George Orwell said, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” When everyone is a potential threat, treating anyone with fairness and respect (what criminologists call “procedural justice”) seems counterintuitive. “Excuse me Sir,” becomes, “Put your hands where I can see them.” Routine questioning devolves into interrogation. A regular traffic stop transforms into a matter of life or death. Unarmed men get shot.

Part of the problem is unkindness begets unkindness — the people question police legitimacy and give it back to them in kind, escalating minor conflicts to a point where deadly force seems proportionate. The wallet or cellphone in your hand could be anything. “We both reached for the gun.”

British have a different dynamic

For these reasons and more, there is great opposition to police carrying guns in Great Britain, where I grew up. Brits assume arming police would undermine Robert Peel’s principle of policing by consent — the notion that law enforcement owes its primary duty to the public, rather than to the state, as in America.

British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. British police who do carry firearms, called Authorized Firearms Officers (AFOs), are seasoned officers, carefully selected. They spend nearly two months in tactical training and attend monthly refresher training days once qualified. AFOs sign their guns in and out and can only shoot when authorized to do so by a commanding officer.

Contrast this with the average American cop, who receives just 50 hours of firearms training in the academy and once a year fires off a few rounds on the range, with the option to repeat until he or she qualifies. Americans need no supervisory authorization to deploy, indeed carry guns off duty.

Of course, British police are also far less likely to encounter an armed civilian. In theory, American police are trained to navigate their armed and uncertain world, but in practice, the famous Moscow Rules for CIA operatives suffice: “Never go against your gut; it is your operational antenna. … If it feels wrong, it is wrong.” I teach in a professional peace officer education program (there are no police academies in Minnesota) and hear this sort of thing espoused all the time.

The intent here is right; problem is, those wrong feelings are not equally distributed — implicit bias means cops are more likely to associate danger with young black men. The assumed presence of guns, moreover, makes it far harder for officers to retreat once they have engaged — Officer Brian Moore in New York approached Demetrius Blackwell only because he saw him adjust something on his belt.

Education, training needed all around

One might predict my policy prescription is tighter gun control. For now, however, I wish to offer something more palatable than abolishing the Second Amendment. We need education and training for police and the public alike, both in safe and effective use of firearms and in de-escalation and conflict resolution. There is no progress without reconciliation, or recognition from both police and the community that they are individually responsible for mistakes made in the past but collectively willing and able to reject the past to build a safer future together.

Cops have an impossible job. If we stop criminalizing basic incivility, we can move police and the public outside of the line of fire. We must change policy and practice so police aren’t working to arrest quotas or rewarded for sweeping the shop floor of the global drugs trade. Technology such as cameras and automated license plate readers could also limit opportunities for combat, at the same time freeing officers to do real police work — like getting illegal guns off our streets. 

James A. Densley is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University.

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