Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Put that gun away

British bobbies are famous for not wielding guns.  They take a relatively normal police uniform, add a ridiculous hat and subtract a pistol.  For most of my life I looked at them as a bit of a freakshow and couldn't fathom why they wouldn't pack heat to shoot some bad guys.  Seriously, a cop's life is mostly high speed chases and shootouts in old factories with desperate drug dealers ... right?  Also, having a big scary revolver is good for intimidating all those evil punks and disruptive protesters.

I don't think that anymore.  There are a few problems with gun toting police, the first of which is that they very rarely use their guns.  This might not seem like a problem, exactly, but it turns out that police who are actively encouraged not to use their weapons like in Canada rarely need them.  I read some scary stuff about cops in the US who whip out their guns for every speeding ticket but up here in Canada the paperwork for pulling a gun is prohibitive enough that cops don't do foolish things like that.  If you don't need your gun much it does not make sense to have one since just possessing them is an issue.

The big thing about possessing a gun is that you tend to then use that gun instead of finding other solutions.  We are all going to be better off if police officers have every possible reason to calm situations down instead of relying on superior firepower to win if things get out of hand.  Just the knowledge that there is a gun on hand makes people more nervous and desperate; when one side is keyed up and the other side is subtly encouraged to escalate a conflict we have a recipe for violence.  Clearly police need to be able to call in backup that has access to heavy weaponry when necessary but it should be a serious choice with opportunity to cool down rather than a split second decision.

Having a gun on hand also separates a police officer from the civilians who surround them.  Everyone is more nervous and worried when a powerful weapon is close at hand such that it is more difficult for police officers to be part of the community when they are carrying a gun.  The gun also cements the idea that police wield power by threat of violence instead of societal contract.  An unarmed bobby is obeyed because we as a society agree that we should do what police officers say to a large extent.  The threat of overwhelming force is far away and that is where it should stay; it is more dangerous for everyone, especially the police, when they are viewed as thugs with big guns instead of people who maintain order with a commanding presence.

I also have a lot less respect for the police based on history.  Most cops are pretty good folk these days (as are most people) but in the past the Toronto police force were used almost exclusively as violent political enforcers and even recently have been in trouble over shootings that seemed really racially biased.  The fact is that although the police are ostensibly there to protect us all they are not immune to politics, bigotry, mistakes, frustration, and misinterpretation.  We all make mistakes and when guns are involved those mistakes can become lethal ones.

The London bobby might seem like an anachronism to some but I think they are the future rather than the past.  Violence everywhere is decreasing and we can help that along by setting a good example with our law enforcement; lethal violence only when all other avenues have been exhausted and never on the spur of the moment.

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