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

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

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.

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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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/12/2015 - 10:20 am.

    Implicit bias

    “There is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery – then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” – Jesse Jackson, Nov. 1993.

    I have a permit to carry. And even though I qualified on several weapons while in the military, I train weekly on the use of my firearms and on best practice reaction in various conflict scenarios, as do the other permit holders that I know. Visit your neighborhood gun range some weekend and see how long you have to wait to shoot. Check out YouTube some time to see the popularity of tactical training videos.

    Unfortunately, I bet we’re all more experienced and qualified to handle armed conflicts in public than the typical city police officer is. I would like to see more police training opportunities (is weekly too much to ask?) on weapons use and proper handling of conflict situations, especially for officers who have no military training.

    Maybe with a better-trained police force, departments won’t feel the need to send out a 8-man combat-ready SWAT team every time there’s a report of someone with a gun. My biggest pet peeve.

  2. Submitted by lee wick on 05/12/2015 - 11:15 am.

    Stop crinmalizing basic incivility?

    I think we need a better explanation what that means. I’m sure everyone has a different opinion.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/12/2015 - 11:56 am.

    There’s a Very Strong (but invisible) Underlying Issue At Work

    in both those few criminals and those few police who,…

    when triggered by circumstances,…

    a triggering mechanism which they do NOT recognize in themselves,…

    will shift into overblown and unreasoning use of violence.

    When a kid, from childhood up through adolescence is demonstrating angry behavior and demanding to get what they want,…

    and mom, dad, teacher, coach, whoever, instead of deescalating the situation, attacks them physically or emotionally in a way that leaves that kid in serious physical pain,…

    or deep emotional pain,…

    his/her psyche locks up the part of that kid’s personality that is capable of that kind of angry response.

    Far too often this is the result of an escalating set of confrontations between a kid who is trying to gain some control over his/her own life and decisions and a parent who is determined to “brook no nonsense,” or teach that kid “NEVER to do that again.”

    But precisely when the parent thinks they have won, and the kid stops fighting, what they’ve really created is a ticking time bomb.

    They’ve locked away an important and necessary piece of that kid’s personality, which will leave that kid disabled in the future as he or she tries to deal with life,…

    and that piece that’s been locked away is NOT going to stay locked away.

    Although that kid may go out of his/her way to avoid confrontations with others, when those confrontations are unavoidable, the person programmed in this way will generally escalate the situation until they “trigger” into that locked up personality,…

    and behave as they were behaving when the got that first figurative or literal beat down,…

    but once they’re triggered, they ONLY have the knowledge, understanding, and maturity of that child who was painfully forced into submission,…

    i.e. the unreasoning tantrum of a two year old being acted out by a much bigger person with the body and strength (and armament) of an adult.

    Furthermore these locked up personality aspects do NOT like to stay locked up. In many cases, the person programmed in this way will have unconscious urges to seek out situations and even jobs where there will be lots of opportunities for them to be triggered and their locked-up personality aspects can be released and expressed for a time.

    Since the use of chemicals, alcohol chief among them, also unlocks the doors on the internal cells where locked up personality aspects are imprisoned, many alcoholics respond to their locked up pieces’ constantly rattling the bars on their cells by finding reasons to drink and let them out,…

    this can be clearly seen in the so-called “mean” drunk who, though a reasonably nice person when sober, starts trying to pick fights with others when they’ve “had a few.”

    It can also be seen in anyone who undergoes a very large personality change when they’re “using.”

    All this relates to guns because people with personality pieces internally imprisoned feel a constant (though generally unrecognized) sense of loss (often called heartache) as the result of that piece not being present in their personality.

    They tend to use people and objects as psychological substitutes for those missing pieces.

    When you’ve had your sense of strength and independence literally or figuratively knocked out of you in ways that have locked away your ability to be strong and reasonably forceful in confrontations,…

    thus leaving you with that response that can be triggered,…

    causing you to shift into very angry, unreasoning, immature violent behavior patterns,…

    a GUN makes a very effective substitute for your missing personality pieces.

    In fact, if you feel weak, insecure, and not quite a whole person without your gun close at hand, if not on your person, you are suffering from such dysfunctions.

    Sadly there are some occupations that uniquely meet the needs of those who have a co-dependent if not outright addictive relationship with firearms,…

    and allow for a fairly easy coverup of situations where an individual was triggered into unreasoning, violent use of that gun,….

    perhaps even making it OK to CREATE an excuse for such behavior:

    these are being a criminal, joining law enforcement, and joining the military.

    If, and ONLY if parents in this nation, stop literally or figuratively beating their kids into unquestioning compliance with what those parents want,…

    far too often, as was the case with Adrian Peterson, simply and dysfunctionally repeating what was done to them by their OWN parents,…

    will we move away from our continuous and accelerating descent into being a violent and violence-prone society.

    Only when, no matter what our personal values, we start raising our kids to be the people God designed them to be while providing them with an equal balance of love and appropriate (and appropriately-administered) limits,…

    will we stop having people become criminals in order to give themselves excuses to violently express their locked up personality pieces,…

    stop having people enter law enforcement for the same reason (though with better motivations),…

    and some of our military personnel, who are so often under stress beyond their control,…

    stop being triggered into to massacring innocent civilians.

    If and when we can stop raising our children in the damaging ways so many of us raise them now,…

    which are far too often exactly the ways we, ourselves were raised,…

    and those of us adults who realize we have been damaged in this way find the help we need to heal those damaging experiences, inflicted on us by those who likely thought they were only hurting us because they “loved” us,…

    most people will pack away their guns, and forget they ever owned them…

    because they will no longer need them to feel strong, healthy and whole.

    Lacking that, our descent into becoming a society where more and more people are raised in violent ways and seek more and more opportunities to be triggered and thus release the unreasoning, violent aspects of their own personalities that were locked away by the emotional and/or physical violence they suffered,…

    as often in white “conservative” families as in any other group,…

    and our tendency to fall prey to the predatory arms manufacturers who are playing on our current dysfunctions by selling us ever more violent and powerful weapons,…

    will continue.

    • Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/23/2016 - 11:52 am.

      The United States, as a society and culture,

      has long depended upon and revolved around firearms, and it has ultimately come home to roost. We’re finally seeing the net results of our being a gun-happy society and culture.

      The United States has the highest murder rate pet capita by firearms in the Western Hemisphere.

      There’s still lots of blood-shed, committed by guns, especially in the United States’ poorest urban areas.

      Most people who kill each other know each other, and are far more likely to be killed by someone they know, rather than a stranger.

      All too often, arguments over things turn deadly when firearms are present.

      It’s all too easy to commit a murder and/or suicide with the presence of firearms., because all one has to do is to pick up the gun, aim it at either oneself or at another person, and then pull the trigger, and either a death, a permanent maiming, or multiple deaths/maimings occur.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 05/12/2015 - 12:16 pm.

    That “something” Officer Moore saw Mr Blackwell adjusting on his waist was a gun! The same gun used to end his life. Officer Moore had a job to do, protect the law abiding people from harm by non law abiding people. Knowing that, he did his job. What were his options, not to ask Mr Blackwell to stop and check Moore’s “gut instinct” that he had a gun. Leave his gun in his car and announce to Mr Blackwell that he was emulating the British Police and wasn’t armed. I don’t understand what Mr Densley wants Officer Moore and other law enforcement officers to do.

    Police understand that most gun violence in the inner-city is black on black crime. Police Officers of all races are trying to help keep the majority of the population safe from the small % of criminals that terrorize the good folks. Taking guns out of the Police Officers hands won’t take guns out of the criminals hands.

  5. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 05/12/2015 - 12:24 pm.


    Carrying a gun in public is asking/looking for trouble

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/12/2015 - 03:47 pm.

      Yes It Is

      But it’s ACTUALLY (and unconsciously) seeking to create a situation in which you can be triggered,…

      and release that part of your personality that was beaten (literally or figuratively) into internal exile by your daddy (or maybe your daddy’s daddy or your momma),…

      and have an opportunity to carry out infantile, irrational, unable to consider anything BUT violent behavior.

      These people have no idea why they’re so desperate to carry guns openly in public,…

      and have no clue that their gun is a substitute for the pieces of their personalities that are missing:…

      their sense of independence, strength, and courage,…

      and that they NEED their guns because they feel painful heartache when they DON’T have a gun in their possession.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/12/2015 - 04:26 pm.

        Thank you, doctor

        Now how would you characterize a male of the species who chose to run away when it came time to risk his life for his fellow citizens and who now rationalize that cowardice by painting those who did perform their natural role as males in society as somehow mentally defective?

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 05/12/2015 - 04:42 pm.

    Greg, I was raised by loving parents and have had guns my whole life. I’ve never shot anyone or have felt the need to point my gun at anybody. I am not afraid of guns but was taught to respect them and their ability to cause great harm by my father 60 yrs ago. My guns are used for hunting, target practice and home/personal security. I don’t want anyone knowing if I’m carrying my gun in public and definitely don’t have heartache when without it. Most folks I know feel the same.

  7. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 05/12/2015 - 08:52 pm.

    “He just snapped and went to the gun cabinet.”

    from today’s Strib:

    “Under questioning later that evening by investigators, Christopher Besser said ‘he was processing events and issues from the past while on the couch in the living room,’ the criminal complaint read. ‘He just snapped and went to the gun cabinet.’

    At a news conference Tuesday, prosecutors said the father had just finished his work shift and had his service pistol strapped on his hip when he was shot.

    Christopher Besser had been drinking before using his hunting rifle to kill his father and brother, Kelly added.

    Police have been called to the home previously, prosecutors said, including once for a suicide attempt, although they did not say whom it involved….

    Christopher Besser took the rifle from the gun cabinet and loaded it. He walked downstairs and saw his father sitting at a computer. Todd Besser began to turn his head toward his son, and Christopher shot him while standing about 4 feet away.

    Christopher then walked up to the kitchen and sat down, resting the rifle between his legs. Blake Besser entered the kitchen, and Christopher raised the rifle and shot his brother in the lower torso.”

    If only a good guy with a gun had been there to stop him. Oh, wait – there was.

    If only Officer Besser (16-year veteran police officer with 12 years of active duty military service and 8 more in the Reserve) had practiced more fervently at the basement computer desk simulator at his local gun range like some of the true-keyboard-warrior-invulnerable-heroes here. He could have then, like a warrior-puma, handled this conflict scenario with aplomb, like all great warrior-pumas do all day in their heads. I guess he wasn’t as great a warrior-puma as the ones we are blessed to share company with here regularly.

    This is clearly what the Founding Fathers had in mind in crafting our eternal freedom.

  8. Submitted by S.T. Malleck on 05/13/2015 - 01:40 am.

    A major driver of violence is the War on Drugs

    Examples can be found of states with high gun-ownership rates and high crime rates (Texas), high gun-ownership and low crime (New Hampshire), low ownership and high crime (Illinois), and low ownership and low crime (Hawaii). Commentators on both sides of this issue often pick examples that fit their own slant, but the fact is, gun ownership is not related to crime. Therefore, violence must be due to other factors.

    One of those has got to be the criminalization of everything. With police called upon to enforce so many laws, many people no longer feel served and protected, but harassed and extorted. The sad fact is that police are no longer protectors of the peace, who try to de-escalate situations. Today they’re often looking to “get you” on something, issue fines, and make arrests. That may be the key factor in the animosity toward police that Mr Densley mentions.

    Another factor Mr Densley overlooks is Prohibition. After Alcohol Prohibition, the public still wanted liquor. Criminal gangs arose to fill the need, resulting in violence as they battled each other for turf. When alcohol was re-legalized, the gangs didn’t go away because Drug Prohibition had been enacted which gave them an even more lucrative revenue source. The Libertarians put together a very good article on the consequences of the War on Drugs. It’s well worth reading.

    Libertarians assert powerful case for ending War on Drugs

    From this article, here’s John Rockefeller who supported Prohibition until he saw what resulted:

    “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

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