As protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have brought police militarization to the forefront of public debate, some voices suggest that reigning in police militarization requires stricter gun control laws. For example, Matthew Yglesias argues at Vox that “when civilians are well-armed, police have to be as well.” Yglesias claims, “The officer always has to worry that if he doesn’t reach for and use his own gun, the suspect will.” He further contends that the disproportionate rate at which blacks are shot by police means “Young black men pay the price for gun rights.”
While “officer safety” is the common refrain used to justify police violence and police militarization, this violence and militarization has escalated during a time period when private gun ownership has declined and gun control laws have become more stringent. Daniel Bier notes in The Freeman that “Today, the actual rate of gun ownership is just 34 percent, down from an average of over 52 percent in the 1970s.” Bier further points out that crime is down as well as gun ownership, and therefore “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.”
The real causes of police militarization have nothing to do with private gun ownership or rampant violent crime. Instead, police militarization arose from institutional factors, particularly federal funding for law enforcement to purchase military weaponry. Gun control will do nothing to address the institutional problems that plague law enforcement.
To the contrary, gun control laws require enforcement, and thus provide new justifications for imprisonment and police violence. Currently, gun control laws follow precisely the same patterns we see from other aspects of the police state. Anthony Gregory points out that, “According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for Fiscal Year 2011, 49.6% of those sentenced to federal incarceration with a primary offense of firearms violations were black, 20.6% were Hispanic, and only 27.5% were white.” Gun laws send peaceful people to prison for years, and those incarcerated most for firearm offenses are people of color.
In addition to feeding into the racist system of mass incarceration, gun control laws are used to justify oppressive police tactics. For example, the primary rationale for New York City’s stop and frisk policy is keeping guns off the streets. This program of police harassment is wildly ineffective and racially biased. As the NYCLU reported in 2013, ” Nine out of 10 of people stopped were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. About 87 percent were black or Latino. White people accounted for only about 10 percent of stops.”
Unlike violent offenses and property crimes, gun offenses often lack a victim. This means that police enforce gun laws by seeking out offenders rather than responding to reports by victims, and thus a lot of discretion is placed in the hands of police, allowing their biases to strongly influence who they investigate. The consequences of this discretion are starkly illustrated by sting operations carried out by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). An investigative report in USA Today found that “At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities.”
The plain truth is that gun laws are enforced using the same apparatus of state violence that has waged a disastrous war on drugs, murdered unarmed black men in the streets, and incarcerated people of color on a mass scale. As Dean Spade of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project wrote shortly after the Newtown shooting:
When we have a conversation about gun violence that ignores the realities of state violence, it often produces proposals that further marginalize and criminalize people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, immigrants and youth. In Washington State, we’re fighting against a new bill that would create mandatory jail time for youth caught possessing a gun. We know that mandatory jail and prison sentences are part of what has created the massive boom in US imprisonment in recent decades that have devastated communities of color. We know that jailing youth does not make our communities safer, it just damages the lives, health outcomes, and educational opportunities of young people.
Gun control will not solve the problems of the racist police state and prison state. Rather, gun control laws have been one source of fuel for the fire of state violence. Expanding gun control means expanding the power of police to harass, coerce, and cage.
Like what you read here? You can sign up for a weekly digest of the SFL blog and subscribe for a weekly update on SFL’s events, leadership programs, and resources here. Have a rebuttal or a blog post you’d like published on the SFL blog? Good news, we take guest submissions!