There are many issues that the ongoing situation in Ferguson has raised. Racism. Race-baiting. Media surpression. Militarization of police. But what it is really about, when you get down to it is … wait, what?
The current issue of The Economist contains a striking factoid: “Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero.”1 By contrast, there are about 400 fatal shootings each year by local police in the United States.
When I tweeted out this stunning stat earlier this week, no shortage of people noted an obvious explanation for why British police were so much less likely to fire their guns: there were far fewer guns around them. The U.K. has some of the world’s strictest limitations on gun ownership—handguns are all but prohibited, while shotguns and rifles require a police certificate and special justification (self-defense does not qualify.) There are an estimated 14,000 handguns in civilian hands in the U.K. (population 63 million) and slightly more than 2 million shotguns and rifles. Estimates for the number of total firearms in civilian hands in the U.S. float north of 300 million. Simply put, if the police in the U.S. seem a lot more on edge than those across the pond, they have good reason to be.
As obvious as this explanation for the militarization and trigger-happiness of U.S. police may be, it has gotten relatively little attention amid the alarming spectacle that has played out in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old and, more recently, the fatal shooting just a few miles away of a mentally-ill man holding a knife.
Every comment thread on Ferguson and police militarization has devolved into liberals screaming that this is really about gun control. If only we got those nasty guns out of the hands of the law-abiding, they say, our police wouldn’t need to be so militarized. They’d be just like the British cops.
Never mind that Michael Brown was unarmed or that Kajieme Powell was armed with a steak knife. Never mind that the protesters were unarmed when police were pointing assault weapons and sniper rifles at them. Never mind that the tear gas and rubber bullet response was justified because of people throwing rocks and bottles (and supposedly, Molotov cocktails). Never mind that our inner cities actually have low rates of legal gun ownership (in DC, the rate of legal gun ownerships is a tenth of the rest of the country). Never mind that fewer officers were shot to death on the job last year than in any year since 1887 (PDF) and that violent assault on cops are down by an equal amount. Never mind that the vast majority of weapons in this country are handguns and rifles, not military-grade weapons. No, it’s really about guns!
In his book on police militarization, Radley Balko talks about the North Hollywood shootout, which was used to justify some police militarization. But the North Hollywood shootout was a rare event, not a harbinger of more violent attacks to come. And the militarization of police throws its roots down in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Rarely has gun ownership been used to justify it. And we have certainly never been told this was happening because of the 300 million guns that are owned by law-abiding citizens and are never used to commit crimes.
If we banned guns today, would the police give up their sniper rifles, flash bang grenades, armored vehicles and assault weapons? Of course not. They would claim that we still face danger from terrorism and drug gangs. They would still claim that any raid faced a danger of illegal military-style weapons. They would still default to an armed stance. Compare how officers responded to Kajieme Powell, emerging close by with guns drawn, to how British police dealt with a maniac wielding a machete. These are different approaches to policing, not a response to the phantom menace of super-predators with machine guns.
But gun control is the Left’s religion. Everything, including the finish of teams in the NFC East last year, proves we need more of it. This attitude comes from desperation: gun control is simply a non-starter for most of the country.