by David B. Kopel
Chronicles magazine. Sept. 2000. More by Kopel on the gun issue in the 2000 election.
Speaking in Atlanta this May, Al Gore joined the National Rifle Association and numerous police unions in supporting federal legislation to override state laws regulating the concealed carrying of handguns. Many states do not allow out-of-state, off-duty police officers to carry handguns. The Vice President wants to force communities to allow non-resident, off-duty visitors, who happen to be police officers in their home state, to carry a concealed weapon.
In contrast, Gore’s position paper on “Gun Violence” claims that “Al Gore will oppose efforts to loosen existing limits on concealed weapons.”Presumably, this means that a future President Gore would sign Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s bill to eliminate the laws in 31 states that allow law-abiding citizens to obtain permits to carry handguns for lawful protection, provided they pass a background check.
States would lose decision-making power under both proposals: Gore wants to stop states from allowing ordinary citizens to carry guns, and to compel states to allow non-resident, off-duty police officers to carry guns.
Gore’s double standard prevails throughout the anti-gun movement. It's virtually impossible to find a gun-control law or proposal that doesn’t have a police exemption. Critics claim that “assault weapons” are useful only for killing a lot of innocent people quickly, but the police can possess them.“Junk guns” are called unreliable and worthless for protection, but the police can use them. Gun locks and other technology mandates are not supposed to impede defensive gun use, but police guns are exempt.
One justification for all these exemptions is that the police have special obligations to protect society and are, therefore, entitled to possess superior force. But no one would suggest that police officers should be allowed to carry nerve gas, surface-to-air missiles, grenades, or mortars. Even if we assume that police officers are the only legitimate protectors of society, they should not necessarily be entitled to possess firearms which are forbidden to other citizens—especially those which are forbidden because they supposedly have no protective value.
Arguably, police officers, as defenders of law and order, are uniquely at risk and, hence, have a higher need for defensive weapons. Officers on street patrol in high-crime neighborhoods, for example, face substantially higher risks than most people do. Yet officers who process paper, direct traffic, and who do not routinely engage in dangerous missions or patrol violent neighborhoods are all allowed, under the proposals favored by anti-gun groups, to possess any weapon they want. These officers face no risk of attack greater than, and sometimes substantially less than, the risks faced by people whom Gore and anti-gun lobbyists would disarm—including the owners of gas stations or grocery stores in crime-ridden neighborhoods, women who are being threatened by ex-boyfriends, crime witnesses and jurors who are at risk of retaliation from violent criminals, and elderly people who have to walk through dangerous areas. A police sergeant who sits in a building where every entrance is protected by several heavily armed officers has much less personal risk of attack than a clerk who works the night shift at a convenience store on the wrong side of town.
Another argument for police exemption from gun-control laws is that officers are trained and disciplined and, therefore, less likely to abuse guns than regular citizens. It would be interesting to try that argument on people in the Rampart neighborhood of Los Angeles, or the many innocent people killed in no-knock drug raids, or the Branch Davidians, or the New York City family of the late Patrick Dorismond.
As reported in the Police Foundation’s book Deadly Force: What We Know, one study of 1,500 incidents concluded that police use of deadly force was not justified in 40 percent of the cases and was questionable in another 20 percent.
Whenever a New York City police officer fires a gun (outside of a target range), police officials review the incident. About 20 percent of discharges are accidental, and another ten percent are intentional violations of force policy. That means that only 70 percent of firearms discharges by New York City police are intentional and in compliance with force policy. In Philadelphia, accidents made up 27 percent of police firearms discharges; in Dade County, Florida, 31 percent were accidental.
According to research by criminologist Don Kates, when police shoot at criminals, they are 5.5 times more likely to hit an innocent person than are civilian shooters. This is partly because the police are more likely to intervene in situations where they do not know the parties, while defensive civilian shooters often know who the criminal is.
Not only are police misuses of firearms in the line of duty common, but their off-duty misuse of guns is disturbingly frequent. When an off-duty New York City policeman fires a gun, one time out of four the shooting will be an accident, a suicide, or an act of frustration.
Finally, police officers do not necessarily receive extensive training in the use of firearms. Some do, but many receive only a few dozen hours at the police academy and may only be required to recertify their ability to hit a target once every few years. A large number of gun-carrying officers have not practiced marksmanship since they received their firearms certification as a recruit.
The amount of training in defensive gun use that police officers undergo rarely exceeds that which a civilian could learn at a good firearms-instruction academy. With the advent of inexpensive indoor laser-target systems and high-technology video trainers for “shoot-don’t shoot” programs, and the proliferation of civilian firearms schools, citizens can be educated in defensive firearms use to at least the same level of competence as that required of police officers in many jurisdictions.
The real basis for the double standard of Gore and the anti-gun groups is neither logic nor sensible policy: It is the belief that government employees are superior to the governed and, hence, deserve special privileges. Yet the very purpose of the Second Amendment, as well as the rest of the Constitution, is to prevent the emergence of the privileged class that Gore wants to create.
David B. Kopel is an adjunct professor of law at the New York University School of Law and research director with the Independence Institute
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