The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have awakened Americans to the alarming degree to which our nation’s police departments have become militarized. As media reports have made clear, much of the combat-grade hardware that even small suburban police forces now possess—the bullet-proof vests, mine-resistant vehicles and so forth—is the result of a deluge of “army surplus” equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan. But this military-to-law-enforcement transfer process tells only a part of the story of how our police became so heavily armed. That 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. This perception was supported by a small but highly publicized number of individual violent incidents along with more mundane everyday policing experiences. Although there were rarely incidents of law enforcement officers being literally outgunned in firearms encounters, routine 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.
In some places, gun manufacturers worked feverishly to help get laws passed, mandating the new powerful side arms for law enforcement. This, sometimes, occurred over the objections of law enforcement leaders and elected officials, who had the responsibility of balancing officers’ safety with the safety of the public. One example of this was the enormous public spectacle starting in 1992 involving the union for the nation’s largest police department, the Police Department of The City of New York (NYPD) when it understandably sought to protect its members by overriding the resistance of its mayor, its police commissioner and its top police commanders (including one who would be the next commissioner) by lobbying the New York State Legislature to acquire a new 9-millimeter, higher ammunition capacity, semiautomatic pistol.
The scene at the legislative chambers at the state capitol in Albany according to the New York Times had, “become ferocious” with police union representatives visiting the offices of every state lawmaker waving a copy of a report issued and supplied to them by the gun manufacturer. Although, New York City’s mayor later managed some non-gun related concessions from lawmakers, his Safe Streets Act (which increased the size of the NYPD) the new semiautomatics immediately became the standard sidearm for 30,000+ NYPD officers (and that of all officers subsequently hired) at approximately $500 per weapon. Naturally, powerful semiautomatics are now a staple of American law enforcement and to suggest something less lethal would be pure heresy in law enforcement circles; and understandably unwise without some counter balance to reduce the number of such powerful weapons in the hands of the public.
This was also a time when weapons’ manufacturing was being revolutionized, resulting in new, higher profit margins. Many manufacturers were already marketing these cheaply mass produced weapons to our own, and foreign, militaries as well as to the “police forces” of authoritarian governments around the world. Now, their marketing sights would be firmly fixed on a steady flow of approximately one million American law enforcement personnel for decades to come.
With more guns in circulation the firepower of the criminal element grew, and subsequently that of law enforcement. These same weapons were now flooding the pages of America’s “gun bibles” and the tables at gun shows. With gun enthusiasts salivating over the sleekest, fastest, and most powerful new models being offered them, the vicious cycle was underway. New huge profits for weapons makers meant increased contributions from these same firearms manufacturers to the National Rifle Association, (NRA) the largest gun lobby in the world. The NRA’s unabated, vigorous, and highly successful marketing strategy, wrapped the whole sales pitch in “Second Amendment” parchment and a “Red, White, & Blue” ribbon for the American public market. Even after the horrific gun slaughter on twenty kindergarteners in Newtown, Connecticut, the pitch for more weapons (read, sales) not only went unabated, it increased.
We are now more than three decades down the weapons strewn highway to uncivil hell. With the help of a few wars (unsuccessful, but well funded for new weapons) and the unending threat of terrorism (an unending military-intelligence-surveillance-security-industrial complex) our military looks like the “Empire” in “Star Wars”; our police departments look more and act more like our military (weapons and tactics); and our ever more fearful, self stylized “defenders of liberty” are all, collectively, locked in the vicious cycle of an internal All-American arms race.
The buzzing over the latest “innovations” from the ever larger, more deadly, and more diversified weapons inventory is deafening. Somehow, such warped development of technology is viewed by many as something that makes America, and, in turn, Americans, think that we are invincible. Whether on the hyped-up, global “Waropoly” game board, or in fantasized “Stand Your Ground” encounters, the weapons industry has duped us en masse. Remember, the “shock and awe” that would guarantee easy victory in Iraq and the burning question of whether Trayvon Martin had the right to stand his ground, even while unarmed.
Naturally, violent career criminals and mentally deranged individuals are also wading in this American river of hundreds of millions of weapons. Through countless means, a frightening portion of these weapons end up in the hands of people who can really accelerate the deadly epidemic of both legal and illegal gun acquisitions. These means can be as simple as house burglaries or direct and straw weapons purchases, or they can be as complicated as international arms smuggling. Abetted by the intentional or unintentional marketing strategies of our highly developed entertainment industry, and by the high drama of “entertainment journalism”, the whole deadly matrix gets a final push to break neck speed toward a society in which firepower overrules the principles and characteristics of a democratic republic.
America, her people, and her government, have been seduced into a false sense of invulnerability, built on a gun myth promulgated by the very merchants who profit hugely from the manufacture and sale of these deadly weapons. Their corporate front men, including the lavishly paid leadership of the NRA, have mastered a rhetorical sales pitch - a mix of fear and patriotism, to squeeze the Second Amendment for every nickel they can get out of it. Anyone who doubts this hypothesis should do what all thinking Americans, (in or out of government) do: Follow the money.
It is time for all Americans to gather around the disarmament table. It is time to hammer out an All-American arms reduction plan, with both citizens and government agreeing to limit the size and power of their respective arsenals. It is time for an All-American détente, a new page in the social contract between a people and their government. It is time to guarantee the democratic characteristics of our law enforcement institutions. And, most of all, it is time to take back control from the weapons merchants. Leaving them the measure of control and influence that they have mastered is a threat, not only to our democratic republic, but to the very existence of humankind as well.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.