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August 25, 2014 12:44 PM Arms Race on the Streets

By Ed Kilgore

To read a lot of the post-Ferguson discussion about the “militarization of the police,” you’d think the whole phenomenon was the product of the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security. But as Peter Mancuso argues convincingly at Ten Miles Square today, there’s another angle that libertarian folk like Rand Paul do not want to pursue: cops bulking up with military hardware as part of an arms race created by Second Amendment absolutism:

[The] larger story begins many years before our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves a tit-for-tat escalation of armaments between criminals, citizens, and police departments that has been egged on by America’s arms manufacturers and gun rights groups. That escalation has led to a breakdown of essential republican understandings among ordinary citizens and government officials alike, and it will continue even if Washington manages to turn off the spigot of surplus weaponry from the Pentagon. As a former Marine combatant, weapons instructor, and career law enforcement official, I am hardly gun-shy, but it’s clear to me that something has gone terribly wrong.
By the early 1980s, there was a growing perception among law enforcement officers and portions of the public that America’s police were being out-gunned in encounters with criminals…. [R]outine arrests for illegal gun possessions were increasingly turning up weapons more powerful than those carried by the officers making those arrests. As law enforcement officers, their families, and police unions began naturally voicing their concerns, the call became louder to increase police officers’ “firepower” (a military term). It was argued strenuously then that this would require replacing the highly reliable revolver, which had been carried by most departments for over a half-century, with a rapid fire, more powerful, semi-automatic side arm.
Of course, this call to increase police officer fire power was further exacerbated by the fact that state legislatures failed miserably in the face of the gun lobby to curb the sale of some of the most powerful and lethal firearms that posed threats to police officers across the country in the first place. As this dichotomy, of the availability of more powerful weapons in the face of police officer safety took hold weapons manufacturers finally broke through and hit real pay dirt. The true irony in all of this is that the huge fortunes realized by their marketing more powerful weapons to American law enforcement, was actually the result of them having already made a fortune selling these more powerful weapons, easily acquired by criminals, to the public to begin with.

It’s actually a bit worse than Mancuso suggests. The arms race between police departments and lawbreakers created an atmosphere of spectacularly lethal violence (even as violent crime rates actually went down) that made it easy for the gun lobby and its paymasters to argue that every single citizen needed to become his or her own police force, as heavily armed as the cops and robbers. “Army of One” indeed.

So we aren’t just witnessing the consequences of the “militarization of the police.” It’s the militarization of America, which happens when you deliberately destroy the state monopoly on means of lethal violence. But again, the Second Amendment fanatics of libertarianism, for whom the only violence worth deploring is state violence, just won’t go there.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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