More Guns Mean More Fatal Police Shootings

We already know that statistically speaking the more guns you have, the less safe you are. On one hand, a gun might help you in the vanishingly rare case that 1) you are the victim of a home invasion or personal assault with a deadly weapon, 2) that the assailant intends to use the weapon against you; 3) that you can pull out and use the weapon effectively before the assailant (or assailants) do. It’s not that this never happens, but it’s rare and extraordinary enough that it usually makes at least the local news.

On the other hand, far more commonplace is the routine, unremarked violence that guns make far more lethal and easily ready: domestic violence, suicide, impulse control problems under the influence, child tragedies, and simple random accidents. The gun allows us the ability to cause violence at a distance with the simple pull of a trigger, and anyone familiar with trolley problem experiments knows that human beings are far more reticent to do violence up close than with mechanistic distance from the victim. Where guns are tightly controlled, crime rates go down, as do intentional and unintentional gun deaths. Gun control does not mean that only criminals have guns and wreak havoc: it means that there are simply fewer lethally violent criminals and fewer lethal crimes due to lack of easy opportunity. This is all well known.

But there is another new data point about the link between guns and increased danger: more guns means a higher likelihood of dying due to police violence.

The U.S. Constitution’s second amendment gives us the “right to bear arms,” but what if having a gun for protection is actually putting you more at risk of harm? A new study finds that a person’s chances of being involved in a fatal police shooting is higher in states with the highest rates of gun ownership, compared to those with the lowest.

The study, from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Northeastern University found that people were 3.6 times more likely to be involved in fatal police shootings if they lived in the 10 states with the most guns — Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia — than if they lived in the five states with the least — Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Gun ownership advocates love to imply that American violence has to do with race, urban crime and (liberal) moral failings rather than conservative values or the guns themselves. They also like to assume that police violence is usually the fault of the victim.

But it’s hard to take that bigoted case remotely seriously when the most liberal states with some of the biggest cities and minority populations have the least fatal police shootings, while the most (per capita) tend to occur in overwhelmingly conservative states, many of which are the whitest in the country.

This is not to imply, of course, that there isn’t a huge overlay of systemic racism in police violence and police shootings (there is), or that police are blameless in the violence regardless of the race of the victim. But it does imply that police are understandably more nervous and more trigger-prone in states where they have a reasonable expectation that any given encounter might be with someone armed and able to kill them if they show a moment’s hesitation.

This is particularly ironic given that the stated purpose of the right to bear arms in the Constitution isn’t about protection from criminals, but about protection from overweening government authorities. As it turns out, living in a stated where you or your neighbors are likely to be armed doesn’t protect you from police violence: it encourages it.

Unfortunately, the argument over guns in this country long ago stopped being about data points, and the messaging about protection from government tyranny is a smokescreen. Gun rights advocates see their guns as proof of their virility, regardless of the risk they cause to their families; they see them as a hedge against imagined race wars and other apocalyptic boogeymen supposedly coming to take their stuff. And they would rather put their communities, their police forces, and their very families in danger rather than give up their fictional fantasies out of Die Hard or a Left Behind novel.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.