Dallas Police
Credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Over the weekend, more and more people responded to the killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minneapolis by urging empathy. Both police and African Americans feel under siege; it was noted that a better “conversation” must occur.

But improved relations usually come from working together on a mutual endeavor, not just talking. Ironically, the issue that can best unite these communities is one of the most divisive: gun control.

The most anti-police organization in America is not Black Lives Matter – it’s the NRA. In the past, they responded to the proposal to ban semi-automatic weapons by attacking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as “jack-booted government thugs.” For years, the NRA has fought restrictions on “cop killer” bullets that pierce the protective armor worn by law enforcement officers. They’ve opposed most gun control measures requested by police.

Not only do they make the police’s job harder, they peddle the lie that America’s police are so ineffective – anarchy already reigns — that regular people must arm themselves. That’s at the heart of the increasingly dominant notion — the most noxious “new idea” of the last thirty years — that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good civilian guy with a gun. Think about it: the answer used to be that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a policeman with a gun. No more. The NRA’s big message: the police are not the answer.

The widespread availability of guns also invariably will put police more on edge.   Do we really think that as more civilians become armed, the police will — or could — exercise more patience as they approach dangerous situations? Reflecting on the killing of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, scholar Jonathan Zimmerman wrote: “We don’t know why Philando Castile chose to carry one. But here’s what we do know: in earlier eras, he wouldn’t have been allowed to. And he might still be alive.”

That’s not to imply any blame for Castille, deny the role of race in these tragedies, or divert attention from the apparently heinous behavior of the police officer, but rather to make the broader point that a world where more people carry guns is a world with more hair-trigger police decisions and more accidental killings.

We still have much to learn about the Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson. But at this point it appears that the fact that a woman sought a restraining order against him in the Army reserves did not affect his ability to buy guns and massive amounts of ammunition. We also know that he was viewed doing military maneuvers in his backyard and that apparently did not trigger action by neighbors or the police. In the new world, is that just considered normal?

Dallas’s police chief, David O. Brown, said the presence of AR-15s among Black Lives Matter protesters — 15 to 20 of them — made it harder for police to address the situation once shooting started.

“They were wearing gas masks,” Mr. Brown said. “They were wearing bulletproof vests and camo fatigues, for effect, for whatever reason.”

When the shooting started, “they began to run,” he said. And because they ran in the middle of the shooting, he said, the police on the scene viewed them as suspects. “Someone is shooting at you from a perched position, and people are running with AR-15s and camo gear and gas masks and bulletproof vests, they are suspects, until we eliminate that.”

Police need gun control — and gun control advocates need the police. The only times in recent memory when gun control has happened have been when liberals teamed up with law enforcement.  The power of grieving moms hasn’t worked, but the activism of police has. Police support was crucially important in passing the 1994 ban on assault weapons. And the Brady Bill passed in part because 120 uniformed officers walked through the Capitol handing out buttons that read “Cops Know Seven Days Can Save a Life.”

The problem is, while the NRA is substantively anti-police, they seem culturally in sync. Some progressives are the reverse — culturally alienated from police but actually supportive of the policies that will save lives of law enforcement. The National Law Enforcement Partnerships to Prevent Gun Violence, which includes the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement groups, has a strong gun control agenda. They call for universal background checks, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, tougher penalties for straw purchases and gun trafficking, and a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.

What a statement it would make if the leadership of Black Lives Matter stood side by side with the heads of the Law Enforcement Partnership to push this agenda.

Progressives need not decelerate their drive for police reform. In fact, they’d likely be more effective if they coupled their demands for justice with a move to protect blue lives.

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.