Do Police Need Guns?

By | July 19, 2021

“Do Police Need Guns?” This question occurred to me recently. I say this because I’m not sure I’ve ever questioned it before. For as long as I can remember, police have always had guns. It’s a part of the police uniform. But do they have to be? It seems to be just presumed that police need guns. But questioning assumptions can lead to valuable insight, even if one’s answer doesn’t change.

Before I continue, I must state quite clearly that I am not a police officer, nor do I happen to be close to any officers. I don’t claim to know what they go through, but I have little doubt that their job can be very challenging and dangerous at times. So understand this article as my offering food for thought rather than my claiming to have certain answers.

What is the purpose of a gun? It is designed to seriously injure if not kill a person. (One might say it is a deterrent, a symbol when used might bring compliance from others. There is some truth to this, but I’d argue that it is only a deterrent because of its danger, and that it has to actually be used some of the time for the threat of use to be effective.) Some may argue that guns are needed for defense. But are police being attacked so frequently?

There was an incident recently which has troubled me. An officer shot a woman in a parking lot near where I work. It’s a location I drive by nearly every day. When I read the initial story, one thing jumped out at me. The police chief said obviously the officer couldn’t have let the woman go. This immediately made me wonder, “Is that true? Why couldn’t he let her go? Is it really that obvious?” (The footage of the incident can be viewed here.)

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, the officer found what appears to be a small quantity of marijuana (or other illegal drugs). Soon after this the woman was shot and later died. So effectively, it seems like possession of this small amount of drugs received capital punishment with no trial. (Now in this particular case, it’s easy to argue that she was shot as a result of pulling a gun and shooting at the officer.

Everything seemed reasonably calm until the officer suggested that he was going to arrest the woman. At that point, she freaked out, started running, and climbed back into her car. This makes me wonder, why was she so afraid of being arrested? Did she have some previous experience or have friends or family who had been arrested? It seems like she would know that it was dangerous to resist arrest (especially as a black person); did she think whatever would happen if she were arrested would be as bad or worse than the results of resisting arrest? Or was she not thinking straight for some reason? For someone in my position, it’s easy to think that being arrested—as unpleasant as I would assume this to be—would be preferable to being dead. But before I assume this, I must recognize she may well have felt different for reasons unknown to me.

The police chief said that the officer did everything possible to de-escalate the situation according to police training. I can believe this. However, from a lay perspective, it seems to me that chasing the woman while she was clearly upset, yelling, and tasing her weren’t actions which de-escalated the situation (even if they are protocol). What would have happened if he didn’t chase her, or didn’t tase her? Could he have blocked her car in with his? (Or was it already?) Would she have tried to flee? Would she still have tried to shoot the officer? Might she have calmed down given the time and space? Would the situation have turned out differently if the officer had been able to wait for reinforcement? What would have happened if the officer didn’t have a gun? Would she still have shot him? In any case, it seems likely that they’d both be alive.

What if she did flee? My thinking is that an officer clearly shouldn’t let someone go if they are a danger to the community. But was that the case here? (Here I have in mind only the drugs, the only offense prior to the confrontation leading to the mutual shooting. In other words, one could argue that she was a potential threat since she shot an officer. However, the officer didn’t know this was going to happen beforehand.)

When police fatally shoot people (regardless of race), the net effect is the person receives a capital punishment without trial. This means at times capital punishment for minor drug possession, alleged theft, $20, suspicion, mental health crisis, holding a toy gun, a previous record, etc.

Now I want to imagine police not carrying guns. Will they still be able to do their jobs? How much of their jobs truly require a firearm? Can can still effectively enforce the law without guns? Are there parts of their jobs presently which should not be? Will they be in more danger without a gun on their hip? Would more people attack and harm police if they aren’t armed? Do police, by virtue of their position, have an unhealthy sense that they must be obeyed at any cost, even to the death?

Perhaps it’s not that the police should never have guns. But maybe only special units should have those guns, and/or rather than carrying their firearm at all times, it could be locked in their car and only retrieved in special circumstances. It kind of seems to me that the only time police should use lethal weapons is in the case of active violence in which there seems to be no alternative than to forcefully prevent continued violence.

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