The devastating terrorist attack in Orlando underscores a terrible problem in our society – too many people are armed to the teeth. This causes tragic acts of gun violence every day. It also leads to oppressive and violent police tactics – both because police are heavily armed themselves and because they often have to be, because criminals are heavily armed too. Combine police survival mentality with racism, and you have the perfect storm causing the horrific murders of unarmed black men by police that is plaguing our country. You may not yet have connected these two problems, rampant gun violence and commonplace police shootings, but they are closely related. At their core, both problems come from our country’s failure to implement sensible gun laws.
Our country has a unique and severe gun violence problem. The United States has way more gun deaths than any other advanced country in the world – around 33,000 per year. In Japan, the odds of being killed by a gun are roughly the same as an American’s chance of being killed by lightening. A gun death in the Netherlands is about as likely as an American’s death by hypothermia. Our gun violence problem simply does not exist in any other advanced country. At least one mass shooting per day happens in this country (where four or more people are injured or killed). It is such an enormous problem that the media saves its attention for only the worst mass shootings, and most aren’t even covered nationally.
Our country, similarly, has a staggeringly high rate of shooting deaths at the hands of police officers. Even accounting for population size, the American police kill civilians at rates as much as 20 to 70 times higher than peer nations. During the first 24 days of 2015, police in the U.S. fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales combined over the prior 24 years; police in the U.S. fatally shot more people in one month of 2015 than Australian police reported during a 19 year span. As with mass shootings, police shootings of unarmed victims occur so frequently that the media has stopped reporting all but the most egregious incidents. By April of this year, the police had shot at least 20 unarmed civilians, but cable news did not cover a single one of the police shootings – they are simply too common to be newsworthy anymore.
The fact that our country has an enormous gun violence problem and the highest rate of police shootings demonstrates that violent policing does nothing to stop gun violence. Rather, many of these police shootings occur at traffic stops gone bad or when fleeing suspects pose no threat. And they disproportionately target people of color. Black men make up only 6% of the population, and yet they comprise 40% of the unarmed people shot by the police. Three out of five of the armed people who are shot by the police, despite showing less threatening behavior, are black or Latino.
So why do our police kill citizens 20 to 70 times more frequently than the police in other western democracies? It is because they are armed. When they encounter someone talking back to them at a traffic stop or having the nerve to flee from them on the street, they have a gun at their hip calling to them. Quite simply, the British police don’t shoot people at traffic stops because they are generally not carrying guns. But our cops have to carry guns because so many civilians are armed. With guns all over the place, it would be foolhardy not to arm our police. As long as our society is a culture that embraces guns with virtually no gun regulations, that situation is going to continue to lead to gun violence. We need to train our police better and hold them accountable, but that is only a part of the solution. Gun regulations are needed. It is a tragic, unacceptable price to pay for open gun rights that our police force will continue to gun down our citizens.