Cops, Gun Control, and the Myth of the US as a Bloody Warzone

After a month of media attention-grabbing shootings in Isla Vista, California, Las Vegas, and now at an Oregon high school, President Obama devoted some time in a Tuesday Q&A session on to these sad incidents, saying that we should “be ashamed” to have failed to address these tragedies.

Now, failing to solve the real problem of gun violence means one thing only to executive power – that there have been no gun control measures passed for private citizens. Considering the blood on the hands of Obama – who is “really good at killing” and all – it feels repellent to see him mourning people who lost their lives to their fellow Americans.

More to the point, though, with that answer Obama was simply perpetuating – sincerely or cynically, it hardly matters – the cultural myth that a few more laws will stop people from committing murder. And more to the point still, the myth that violence is only wrong when it’s committed by private citizens sans an official uniform. Homicide, rape, assault, and every other type of crime has plunged in the last two decades. Between 1993 and 2010, the gun homicide rate was halved. (The reason for the dramatic decline in national crime since the 1990s is still being debated by criminologists and sociologists.) That’s not something you see stressed in terrified, post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech, Post-Sandy Hook media narratives. (Certainly not when the perpetrators of any shootings can be tied to the right in any fashion.) Instead, we must do something about school, workplace shootings – anywhere there’s violence where it shouldn’t be. But the offered solution is invariably disarm people, or add more laws, or further restrictions on the rights to bear arms. Restrictions on police or government actions are not even considered for a moment.

Like their president, the left are dead-convinced that more laws will fix myriad social problems, including mass shootings. And the more moderate of them, such as Gawker’s Adam Weinstein, will even brush over the alarming state of police in this country while they are busy advocating for further gun control for private citizens. Gawker constantly covers police misconduct and brutality, yet after the Isla Vista shooting, Weinstein’s laundry list of “never again” suggestions includes “More cops. Not armed private citizens, cops.” You know, “a guy whom we as a society have decided is good. Don’t trust cops? Then work to create better-trained, savvier cops. Don’t complain about the evils of policing like it means something.”

After every police shooting – just or otherwise – the clichés roll out from the PR flaks: “officer safety is paramount”, “split-second decision”, “reached for waistband” and “our officers felt threatened.” To question whether an individual tasked with legal lethal force should have waited to make sure the old woman concerned over a potential break-in, the teenage graffiti artist running away, or the peaceful protester was a real threat is to not care whether these brave officers live or die. To be sure, one might argue that their entire job description should be – could be – risking their lives to make sure situations are diffused, and that nobody is taken away in a body bag unless it is truly, unequivocally necessary. But no. It’s officer safety first.

With rare exceptions, being a cop today is safe. In fact, it’s safer than than it has been in 60 years. Yet, if an officer gets killed, that is often taken as a sign that cops require more and more gear, and still more legal protections for their ability to use force. And if the police death count for the year goes down, that means, well, we had better keep doing what we’re doing, because every Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) military vehicle that was intended for the streets of Baghdad or Kabul and is now in Pulaski County, Indiana, population 13,124, is necessary for safety.

Last week, The New York Times published a good, substantial summary of the state of militarized police, which exists thanks in part to the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Author Mike Apuzzo writes that just during Obama’s presidency “police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.” Since 1990, more than 4.2 billion dollars in gear have been passed out, mostly to police departments in areas with little crime.

Using this gear – having it at all – feeds into the psychology of warriorhood that police now too often possess. This is as literal as the war toys themselves. For example, last week the sheriff of the aforementioned Pulaski County told local news that “The United States of America has become a war zone. There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract.” Recently, Mediaite editor in chief Andrew Kirell (a friend) had an alarming Facebook interaction with the Hamtramck, Michigan Police Department social media person (possibly the chief) who confidently typed that “statistics are worthless” and “Society is more violent than it has ever been, period!” after Kirell questioned the department’s need for a MRAP vehicle.

On a personal note, I won’t soon forget being a curious college student during the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh in 2009, and having a cop point his less-than-lethal weapon at my friends and I. He did this while screaming “Get back! Get back!” as if we were a mob with pitchforks and torches instead of a bunch of students walking away with our hands up, wincing and waiting for a rubber bullet in the back. In short, the mystery riot cop sounded afraid more than anything else – as if he were in a war, instead of keeping an eye on a score of protesters and hundreds of onlookers.

If statistics don’t matter, if declining violence doesn’t matter, if only officer safety matters, and meanwhile thousands of war toys are free for the taking by police departments, the warrior attitude expressed by cops should come as no surprise. It’s been handed to them by the wars on drugs and terror, and by bad Supreme Court decisions, and by this thoughtless esteem for them offered by our culture.

After all, the rules of morality cannot emigrate abroad – not when we have indefinite wars to fight. And now, thanks to our militarized police, the inequality between uniformed Americans and the rest of us poor slobs can come right back home again. Much like the cult of the soldier – which conveniently lets individual physically and mentally damaged people rot, but bumper sticker-salutes their sacrifice in the abstract – this lazy respect for cops now means assumptions of good faith (both legally and culturally) on the part of people given guns and given the right to use legal, lethal force. Meanwhile the president and the media busy themselves distracting us from the real problem – the real American culture of violence that shows its face every day both here and overseas.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.