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We shouldn't talk about Ferguson without talking about guns

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, reveals many things about America. One of them that has not yet received adequate attention is that there is a strong case for a form of gun control that is much stricter than anything that's remotely plausible in the context of American politics.

This is true if you think Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson should have been found guilty of a crime. But in many ways it's even more true if you think he's innocent of any wrongdoing. A system in which legal police shootings of unarmed civilians are a common occurrence is a system that has some serious flaws.

In this case, the drawback is a straightforward consequence of America's approach to firearms. A well-armed citizenry required an even-better-armed constabulary. Widespread gun ownership creates a systematic climate of fear on the part of the police. The result is a quantity of police shootings that, regardless of the facts of any particular case, is just staggeringly high. Young black men, in particular, are paying the price for America's gun culture.

Police killings in international context

I've seen this chart from the Economist many times since Brown's death. But I think it's been misinterpreted.

Ferguson is in many ways all about race and racism. But this chart reveals an important sense in which it's not about that at all. If you know anything about the UK or Germany, you'll know that these are not even remotely societies who've eliminated the problem of racism. If anything, having struggled with it for less time than the United States, they're even worse than we are. Where they outperform us is in drastically reducing the civilian death toll without ending racism or entrenched poverty or any of the St. Louis area's other problems.

A well-armed population leads to police shootings of the unarmed in two ways. One is that police officers have to be constantly vigilant about the possibility that they are facing a gun-wielding suspect. Cleveland police officers shot and killed a 12 year-old boy recently, because they not-entirely-unreasonably thought his toy gun was a real gun.

The other, more relevant to the Michael Brown case, is that when civilians are well-armed, police have to be as well. That turns every encounter into a potentially lethal situation. The officer always has to worry that if he doesn't reach for and use his own gun, the suspect will. In his grand jury testimony, Wilson pointedly claims that at one point Brown put his right hand "under his shirt into his waistband" — i.e., made a motion that could be plausibly construed as reaching for a gun.

No guns, no shootings

West Midlands Authorised Firearms Officer with specialist uniform (West Midlands Police)

The big reason British cops don't shoot civilians is that cops in the United Kingdom don't have guns. If a special situation requiring firearms arises, the call is put out for a specially trained firearms unit. But an unarmed teenager shoplifting blunts doesn't make the cut, so unarmed teens don't get shot by British cops.

It was genuinely striking as an American to witness the heavy police presence in Cardiff this September around the NATO summit. The relatively small city was positively flooded with cops. Unarmed cops. Cops who walked around town chatting with locals and keeping an eye on things. Armed police are such a curiosity that I heard some middle-aged Welsh ladies asking an officer if any armed units were in town to gawk at (they were, but the officer professed not to know their whereabouts).

Radley Balko's excellent book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop, offers plenty of examples of overly militarized policing. But American cops don't carry weapons because they're bloodthirsty or insane. The basic reason American police departments are so much better-armed than their British counterparts is that Americans civilians are much better armed. There is about one gun per person in the United States, and the police legitimately need to be able to wield more force than the citizens they are policing. In America there are lots of guns, so the cops need lots of guns. Consequently, people get shot.

Young black men pay the price for gun rights

Freedom isn't free, and a somewhat higher rate of police-involved killings could simply be the price we pay for strong gun rights. It's the interaction with race, however, that makes this so problematic.

The cost of American gun ownership isn't borne evenly across the country. Black people — specifically young black men — are suffering disproportionately from both gun homicide (which, yes, is more common where guns are widespread — it's true that a large share of crime guns are already illegal, but the legal circulation of large quantities of small weapons makes it much easier to obtain one illegally) and police shootings.

To be clear about something, since it seems very important to a lot of people who email and tweet at me, this is not some kind of crazy cosmic coincidence. It is genuinely true that men murder at a higher rate than women, that young people murder at a higher rate than old ones, and that black people murder at a higher rate than white ones. That a pall of suspicion falls on young black men is, in part, a statistical inference.

But this statistical inference gets young black men killed for encounters with the police that would lead to a reprimand or a citation for a white one. And that's a national scandal. It is a form of wholly unjustified collective punishment inflicted on an African-American community that, just like the white community, consists overwhelmingly of non-murderers.

A legacy of bias

And of course there's much more going on than simple statistical inference. Study after study shows widespread low-level bias against African-Americans. Medical doctors are less likely to give black patients adequate pain medication. Participants in shooting simulations are less likely to correctly identify black civilians. Black children are perceived as older than they really are. White people are likely to attribute superhuman powers to black people. Law student memos are judged more harshly when the reader believes the author was black.

This is all done not by Ku Klux Klan members, but by random samples of the population. Very normal people who would loudly insist, if asked, that they are not racist and whose friends — the white ones at least — would surely stick up for them.

And that's what makes it so problematic. A police force filled with perfectly average, normal, everyday Americans is going to deal systematically more harshly with black suspects.

The impossible politics of gun control

America's culture of widespread gun ownership and strong gun rights is devastating to black America. African-Americans suffer disproportionately from gun crime, and then suffer all over again from disproportionate police killings. It's no coincidence that if public policy were made by black Americans or their elected representatives, gun ownership rules would be radically different.

But it isn't. Policy is made by mostly white elected officials responding to a mostly white electorate, in which gun rights enthusiasts are the people who care most about the issue. Among the general public and the political mainstream, gun regulation tends to arise in the context of mass shootings.

These rare events are politically convenient due to their high salience and the thought that small changes to the rules could cut down on these outlier events. But mass shootings are a tiny fraction of all gun homicides in America. Small, narrowly tailored legislation to address them would do little about the big problems in American crime control policy and nothing at all about the plague of systematically biased police shootings.

But there's no political support in America for drastic disarming of the civilian population. People like owning guns, there's a deep cultural tradition of gun ownership, violent crime is not a big problem for most people, and murder rates are falling. That's another way of saying the white majority and its children don't need to worry much about this problem.

But the fact that heavily armed cops are disproportionately likely to kill young black men is a national scandal. Gun ownership is the huge, obvious difference between the United States and countries with drastically lower rates of police killing and nobody is talking about it. That's very unlikely to change any time soon. But it ought to.

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