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America’s Cop Problem Is Also a Gun Problem

Police have adopted the same fundamental societal outlook as gun rights advocates: Arms are synonymous with law and order.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

On the evening of June 15, all hell broke loose in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Police were called to a protest, where a man had attacked several protesters, pulled a gun, and shot someone in the crowd. The shooter—a 31-year-old Republican and unsuccessful city council candidate who had run, he’d said, “out of fear the community is becoming a ‘Third World Country’”—was then surrounded by a protective, intimidating coterie of militiamen with guns. Calling themselves the New Mexico Civic Guard, the tactically outfitted riflemen had gathered to physically block protesters’ demands for the removal of a statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador who persecuted Native Americans and whose monument had been controversial since its erection a quarter of a century ago. 

The mere presence of the militiamen had already escalated tensions, even before the shooting. Afterward, when police arrived on the scene, the result looked like a battlefield encounter: Heavily armed police forces in tactical gear confronted militant civilians in camouflage gripping assault-style firearms. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, leveled righteous fury at the “heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest,” saying the men “were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force.”

Unregulated force, of course, is not an uncommon sight today in the United States. Last month, police had to contend with an angry mob of similarly well-armed protesters, including many militia members, who stormed the Michigan Capitol in Lansing. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, as 6,800 Trump supporters gathered to hear the president’s latest rally speech, armed pro-Trump militias and biker gangs milled about downtown, including rifle-wielding members of the Cowboys Motorcycle Club, who identify themselves as “a solid group of men from the US [Special] Ops, US military, Merc’s, and Militia.” 

It’s not hard to imagine that law enforcement officers might be reflexively vigilant, to the point of armed edginess, in proximity to such “Second Amendment Men” with lightly modified weapons of war. Yet police nationally this month have often reserved their most aggressive tactics for peaceful, unarmed masses of protesters. Emboldened perhaps by their military finery—bulletproof vests, helmets, and face shields, often shadowed by heavy armored vehicles of war—they have lashed out brutally at peaceful assemblies in public spaces, journalists in the conduct of their work, and onlookers in their homes. Their appearance, like the armed militiamen’s and bikers’, strikes ever more Americans as an act of aggression itself. 

Law enforcement has been infected by America’s gun culture, as Derek Thompson has recently argued in The Atlantic. “[C]elebrating widespread gun ownership,” he writes, “makes it all but inevitable that 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.” 

Underscoring this domestic arms race, a larger philosophical issue looms: Police have adopted the same fundamental societal outlook as gun rights advocates: Arms are synonymous with law and order. Whatever process of public safety reform may await the U.S., a radical reform of gun culture must be part of the conversation.

Consider how our gun culture makes American society needlessly treacherous, for police and citizens alike. The U.S. lacks the most basic of firearms regulations: universal background checks on all gun purchases and transfers. In the absence of such constraints, gun rights advocates have promoted laws enabling armed citizens to carry their guns in public—and, in many states, shielding them from criminal and civil liabilities for causing damage to people and property. 

Chief among these relaxations of gun owners’ public responsibilities is the permitless carry movement, which argues that American citizens should be free to walk armed without any restrictions, training, or licensing whatever. Permitless carry is legal in 16 states; only one of those states had its law on the books before 2011. Add to this Florida’s landmark 2005 Stand Your Ground law, some version of which has been adopted in 34 states. The law relieves armed citizens of any duty to retreat before meeting “force with force, including deadly force.” As the vigilante killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin and its aftermath showed in 2012, the law’s “presumption of fear of death” in a shooter is easily influenced by racial bias. (America’s gun culture, in general, wreaks special destruction on Black Americans, who die from gun violence at a rate 10 times higher than whites.)

It’s a favorite saying of gun advocates that “an armed society is a polite society.” We have abundant evidence that that is hardly the case. Quite to the contrary, an armed society encourages—or even forces—people to solve problems with a gun, not shrink from violence. Police are gripped with a similar madness. Consider again how often, in recent weeks, police have blocked, bullied, kettled, gassed, and bashed protesters, rather than “pacifying” them. They simply reject the central notion that in a democracy, peace is upheld by rule of law and not rule of violence. This rejection is also evident in the National Rifle Association–supported “killology” and “sheepdog” training offered to police forces and gun-wielding citizens alike, training that treats the masses as unwitting sheep and elevates the sheepdogs who keep wolves at bay with “[s]uperior violence. Righteous violence.”

Despite its centrality to modern notions of democracy, the rule of law is easy to take for granted, more noticeable when it’s absent than when it’s present. It is the implicit sense of security that grounds civil society and enables it to function smoothly—or at all. Rule of law is enacted every day as an unspoken act of faith, founded on mutual trust. Rule of law operates without the threat of violence; it withers when guns show up—even in support of the law. 

If you have to show a gun to get people to behave, they will question the legitimacy of the law, which, in democracy, is decided by popular consent, not violent force. A show of force, be it from police or gun owners, does not shore up a regime’s legitimacy and make it more secure; it does the opposite, betraying a lack of faith in the social contract.

Authoritarian threats of mortal violence undermine not only democracy but authority itself, Hannah Arendt argues. When authority turns to violence, she writes, this suggests the game is up: Authority is conceding that it is wounded, weak, and effectively gone. It has lost the power to awe the people—and has lost faith in its own power to hold them in awe.  

Successful public safety reform would cement bonds between police officers—or whoever replaces police officers—and the communities they serve. Our increasingly armed society makes such a reciprocal relationship nigh impossible: The toxic vigilantism of gun culture infects not only relations between citizens and police but relations among citizens themselves. Guns and the privileging of “righteous violence” by armed Americans have deepened our mutual distrust and fear. The way of the gun cannot be the way forward.