As I’ve written before, I’m not a gun-control advocate because there are lots of other factors that can reduce violence that are more politically feasible. For example, Franklin Zimring has numerous suggestions for how to change the rules of engagement to reduce the number of Americans police kill every year. He says that New York and Philadelphia dramatically reduced police killings by changing the rules of engagement and they did it without increasing any risk to police officers.
He also argues that victims of police should be able to sue police departments for having unhealthy, (lethal) rules of engagement and that the financial pressure of lawsuits will work better for reducing police killings than enhanced criminal penalties against officers. He says it is that simple: let victims sue for financial penalties to pressure police departments to change their rules of engagement.
The Black Lives Matter movement has recently risen up with remarkable mass mobilization and energy to correct police abuse problems, and I’m not convinced that the movement has clear ideas for how to achieve less violence against Blacks. For example one of the biggest police abuses against Blacks is the fact that very few murders of Blacks are ever solved. This helps explain why so many Blacks get murdered because there is simply less deterrent against murdering Blacks when the police neglect to solve those crimes. Many BLM activists want to defund the police, but that will only exacerbate this abuse.
One focus of the BLM movement is the high number of Blacks who are killed in police confrontations and this is something that all racial groups should support not only for racial justice, but because all races face a higher probability of getting killed by American police than people in most other developed nations. In fact, more whites are killed by police than Blacks simply because there are a lot more whites in America.
Defunding the police could help reduce police killings of civilians, but there is a potent tradeoff: fewer police will likely mean more violence from criminals. This is why defunding the police isn’t popular. Most people logically fear an upsurge in crime. But Franklin Zimring says the main reason that American police kill so many Americans is that there are so many guns in America. American police are always scared of getting shot, so they are always on a hair-trigger alert about it and that isn’t true in other rich nations.
In most developed nations, the police don’t expect to ever draw their guns. In the Netherlands, gun use by police is so rare that every use is publically investigated. In Japan, the police get more training in hand-to-hand martial arts than in gun use because they are not expected to use guns. In several nations including the United Kingdom, most police never carry a gun at all and that might seem unfeasible in the US where we have more guns per capita than any other nation in the world, but a couple of conservative thinkers have proposed just that.
The reason is, as Tate Fegley points out, that most of what police do is related to monitoring cars on roads where guns aren’t needed. Only a relatively small minority of policing time is spent dealing with actual felony crimes. Policing cars is primarily a matter of mild infractions and misdemeanors.
According to the US Department of Justice’s most recent report on contacts between the police and the public, over half are traffic stops, and an additional 14.6 percent are in relation to traffic accidents… officers spend around 74 percent of their time engaged in patrol, typically in a car. Over 9 percent of arrests recorded in the 2018 FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program data are for driving under the influence… In addition, revenue from traffic citations can constitute an important source of municipal funding. One example (though definitely an outlier) is the town of Randolph, Missouri (pop. 47), which issued 3,132 traffic fines, collecting an estimated $148,000 of their $270,043 total revenue in 2009…
That’s right, some towns, such as Randolph, MI get most of the revenues for their town not from taxing local people but from issuing fines on drivers which are probably aimed at nonresidents or else the city government would have been voted out of office because if the fines were only levied on residents, they would total over $3,000 per person! This is a remarkably common strategy for small towns located on busy highways. They set up speed traps and leech as many fines out of as many outsiders passing by as possible. There is absolutely no reason those people should be toting guns all the time which sometimes end up hurting innocent people. Because these traffic stops rarely involve dangerous motorists, Alex Tabarrok suggested that traffic enforcement should be the “unbundled” from police:
The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by a[n] unarmed agency. Put the safety patrol in bright yellow cars and have them carry a bit of extra gasoline and jumper cables to help stranded motorists as part of their job – make road safety nice.
This would undoubtedly reduce police violence, but the main thing that would reduce violence is the absence of guns. There really isn’t much reason to create a completely separate bureaucracy, and there is already a tradition of traffic police in the US who do not carry weapons. And America doesn’t need our police to tote as many guns as in the past because violent crime has declined by more than 70 percent since 1993 and fewer Americans have guns (see below for details).
An additional benefit of having traffic police that don’t carry weapons is that they would be less likely to essentially rob people of their property. This is called “civil forfeiture” and it is another lucrative way for corrupt municipalities and police departments to raise money for themselves. Tate Fegley points out one Texas town called Tenha with a population of 1,100 which “seized millions of dollars in forfeitures from traffic stops before being sued in 2009.”
As Derek Thomson pointed out, the role of guns in the police reform debate is oddly absent even though it really should be central.
the United States has more armed police than similarly rich countries, more panicky officers, more adversarial police encounters, more officer shootings, and more civilian killings.
The morbid exceptionalism of American police violence cannot be explained by the amount of money the U.S. spends on police, or by the number of cops it employs. The U.S. spends less on police than the European Union does, as a share of GDP. Italy has more officers per capita than any state in the U.S., according to a comparison of FBI and Eurostat databases. Greece has more officers per person than Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore; and Chicago.
But none of those places shares our epidemic of police violence. American police kill about 1,000 people every year. Adjusted for population, that body count is five times higher than that in Sweden, 30 times higher than that in Germany, and 100 times higher than that in the United Kingdom…
Gun prevalence… is a danger for cops, too. As the Vox reporter German Lopez writes, police officers are especially likely to be shot dead in states with more guns. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the relationship between state firearm-ownership rates and police killings, controlling for factors that relate with homicide rates, such as income, poverty, property crime, and alcohol consumption. The researchers concluded that “a 10% increase in firearm ownership correlated to ten additional officer homicides” from 1996 to 2010.
Where guns are abundant, civilians are more likely to kill civilians and cops, and cops are, in turn, more likely to kill civilians. A 2018 study from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that “rates of police shooting deaths are significantly and positively correlated with levels of household gun ownership,” even after accounting for other variables, such as poverty.
Instead of BLM protesting gun violence, the nation has focused upon racism which is a serious problem, but racism cannot just be legislated away. Guns can be. And there isn’t any evidence that anti-racism trainings have done anything to stem police violence, and putting more Blacks in police uniform hasn’t helped, and the racial composition of neighborhoods doesn’t explain police shootings, whereas in countries where there is less gun violence, there seems to also be less police violence although international policing statistics are difficult to compare. But a stronger focus on guns might work better to reduce the violence of racist police than anything else we could do. Blacks also have much less to lose in the gun control debate because more than double the proportion of white households own guns compared with Black households.
Finally, the politics of gun control will eventually shift due to the tides of history which are steadily moving away from guns as can be seen in the changing patterns of gun ownership. The percent of Americans who hunts has dropped in half since 1977 (to only 15%) and the percent of Americans that owns a gun has also been steadily dropping (to about 22%). Most people are aware that the number of guns in America has been steadily rising, but that is because the shrinking number of households (now about 31%) that has guns is steadily buying larger and larger gun collections. So the percent of Americans that owns a gun has been steadily shrinking, but that shrinking minority has become increasingly enthusiastic about guns and buying more and more. It is only a matter of time until the majority of Americans that has nothing to do with guns decides that they aren’t comfortable with some of the gun fanatics in their neighborhood.
Gun control may seem politically impossible but it is way more popular than defunding the police and look what happened with that issue this year. Some common-sense forms of gun control already have the popular support of the majority of Americans and even many police support various forms of gun control including the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Separating the violent crimes and felony’s policing from nonviolent traffic safety policing would be a great way to reduce police violence. A similar story happened when paramedic services were unbundled from policing. In the 1950s, the police generally transported injured people to hospitals in modified police cruisers like this one:
In the 1970s in Pittsburgh, an all-Black ambulance corps pioneered what became the paramedic system that America has today. The police still perform some paramedic services, but the primary responsibility has been unbundled to EMS specialists who have more training and (generally) don’t get paid as much. And, of course, like traffic safety police, they don’t need guns.