You’d be forgiven if, in the past few weeks of social unrest, you haven’t thought much about gun violence generally. After all, a gun wasn’t used to kill George Floyd. The image of an officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck was proof enough that a deeper problem continues to afflict our nation’s law enforcement.
But it would be a mistake to try to resolve the problems with police behavior without also acknowledging and addressing America’s epidemic of gun violence. Police reform and gun reform go hand in hand. Reducing the easy availability of guns would not eliminate the problems with policing in America nor end unwarranted killings, but it would help.
Start with the fact that the United States doesn’t necessarily have more crime than other rich countries. What it has is off-the-charts homicide rates. Why? Because the prevalence of guns makes our violent crimes far more lethal. And that fundamentally changes how police officers behave.
Simply put, police are more likely to use lethal force when they believe lethal force might be used against them. We’ve seen the tragic results: Police fatally shooting scores of people, including children, because they mistake their toy guns for real weapons. Or shooting an adult man because he’s holding a cellphone. Or a hammer. Or a pipe. Or a lighter.
Of course, these incidents can be explained at least in part by a racist tendency to see people of color as more of a threat. But they might also be the result of fear. Indeed, American police officers are more likely to die in the line of duty than their counterparts in other rich countries. This reality is embedded into the psyche of many American officers. As one former officer put it:
Cops tweet, retweet, post on Facebook, text each other, and talk about line of duty deaths whenever they happen. I had a partner who began every shift by checking the Officer Down Memorial Page website that maintains an updated list of law enforcement and prison officers killed in the line of duty. He did this every shift. That’s what he was absorbing immediately before going out on the street to interact with civilians.
It’s certainly true that there can be brutal police behavior, and unwarranted shootings by police officers, in jurisdictions with strict gun-control laws. Yet there is substantial evidence that an abundance of guns on the streets is correlated with a tendency to shoot suspects. A 2018 study by Harvard researchers found that states with the highest gun ownership rates had a rate of fatal shootings by police 3.6 times higher than the states with fewer guns. A 2017 study found that state-level firearm laws — such as stronger background checks, restrictions on gun trafficking and restrictions on more dangerous weapons — were significantly associated with lower rates of fatal police shootings.
None of this is to suggest that gun reforms will solve our problems in policing. They must be paired with overdue structural and cultural changes needed to excise the bad behavior in law enforcement. That should include the demilitarization of police, a greater investment in local social services and a national reconciliation effort in communities plagued with officer-involved violence.
But more stringent gun laws would also represent an important step to reduce police shootings and to make communities safer overall. There are a number of remedies available — from mandating safe storage of firearms to requiring licenses for ownership, many of which states have already implemented — that can reduce gun deaths without violating Second Amendment rights.
As a practical matter, adding such proposals into the current mix could complicate ongoing campaigns for police reform. Gun legislation has been stuck in the muddy trenches of partisan warfare for years. No one should have any illusions that federal lawmakers are any more likely to mobilize behind gun reforms now.
Even still, the force with which the public is demanding change offers reason for hope. There’s a sense that this moment is different — that lawmakers cannot ignore these cries for a better America. Gun violence is a crucial piece of the puzzle; we cannot let it be left out of the conversation.