The Notion of Safety: Guns and Ferguson

I’m not usually one to be very vocal about certain social issues; my loud high school self has subsided into someone whose opinions are complained about briefly at the dinner table or in a few angsty tweets, and I leave it at that. But for the past few days, and culminating in tonight with the announcement of the verdict in Ferguson, I’ve become very disturbed about our gun culture in America and its implications on both police officers and victims.

I don’t like guns. If there’s something I feel strongly about, it’s guns. I did not grow up with guns; my parents do not own any, we’re not hunters, I don’t live in a violent community, and I have not been personally affected in my past by guns. I’ve only ever shot a BB gun at Boy Scout camp, and even that experience was so unpleasant that I told the instructor that I did not wish to continue.

The Washington Post has an interesting article comparing the number of museums and libraries to the number of gun stores in each county across the country. While I am glad that, in both of my residing states of New Jersey and Massachusetts, there are no counties in which there are more gun stores than museums and libraries, a short journey outside the Northeast details a much more dramatic picture. Looking at the map in the article, one will notice that the number of gun stores relative to museums and libraries increases dramatically as one goes south and west, to the point where in Deschutes County, Oregon, there are about seven times more gun stores than there are libraries and museums.

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This says much about our culture as a country; not only is it pitiful that a comparison of the number of gun stores to libraries and museums found surprising results of note, it is disgusting that it found results noting that there are locales in which gun stores outnumber museums and libraries.

Why do Americans have such an infatuation with guns?

We hear in the news all the time about the NRA using their power to influence a Congressional vote or to affect politics to be in its favor. We hear too many stories of elementary school shootings that are considered tragedies, yet no action can be taken because some stubborn people persistently believe that people inherently deserve to own and use guns. Constitutionally, according to a 1791 way of thinking before we had police or a military, we do have a right to bear arms and thus own guns. Now I understand that people may own guns for hunting, and that hunting is a hobby for many, but the types of guns making it into the news are not rifles used for hunting, but rather handguns used for killing people. Michele Bachmann is a wonderful example of an unfortunately elected politician who confuses the distinction between these, and it is thoughts such as this that detracts and deters any progress from being made regarding gun policy.

Historically, guns were used for “protection” (albeit in a rather racist and colonialist manner against Native Americans), but this way of thinking has become toxic, and it has led people to abuse this power, even when they are “properly certified” or have the “proper documents” to show that they can legally use and own a handgun. Why even own a handgun in the first place? To brag about your “power” to people who “care?” What is a rational use of a handgun that cannot be taken care of with the swing of a baseball bat?

But then what’s the solution? In the same video above, Maxine Waters explains that, because guns are too easily accessible to people who are of lower income, violence rages on every day. Chris Rock observes that perhaps spiking the price of bullets would solve this problem; if no one can afford to buy bullets, then guns will cause less tragedy.

Recent news has me alarmed, however, that the abusers of guns are not ordinary people, but rather those people who are given guns to protect their communities: police officers. A few days ago, we heard about a cop in Brooklyn who murdered an unarmed man as he was walking down the steps inside of his apartment building, and about how he shot his gun because he was nervous in the dark, even though he had a flashlight. We also heard recently about a cop in Cleveland who murdered a twelve-year-old boy because the toy BB gun that he had with him was revealed to cops when they asked the boy to put his hands up.

Notice the language that I used in describing the above tragedies: yes, the man and the boy were killed, yes they were shot, but in totality they were murdered; there’s no other word to describe it. The excessive force exerted by these police officers, whose bullet-proof vests would protect them from a BB gun and would certainly protect them from an unarmed man, is unacceptable, but the legal system in this country condones each of their actions and does not punish or provide consequences for such wrongdoings.

A perfect example of this is shown in the announcement about the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The prosecutor did not say that Michael Brown was “murdered,” but rather “fatally wounded,” even though Officer Darren Wilson shot twelve bullets at Michael Brown, of which at least seven hit him. If it only takes one bullet to kill a person, why did this grand jury think that seven was permissible to excuse Officer Wilson of any consequences? If walking in the street is such a crime, why do people continue to do it without these fatal consequences? The mere fact that excessive force was used should be enough to at least indict Officer Wilson with some consequences, instead of letting him go off the hook.

But you talk to some police officers and they will disagree with me. They purport that police officers, at the end of the day, have to protect themselves while at work. First and foremost, though, the duty of a police officer is to protect the community that they are protecting. This was displayed poignantly, although tragically, on September 11, 2001, when dozens of first responders and cops rushed into the burning Twin Towers to save the many citizens whom they protected from harm. This standard of excellence has not been shown recently though; it was not shown in Brooklyn, it was not shown in Cleveland, and it certainly was not shown in Ferguson.

Officer Darren Wilson’s easy dismissal proves that our legal system, with all of its institutional racism intact, will continue to condone the actions of police officers in situations such as these. Demonstrations will continue in opposition, but until our legal system decides to prosecute police officers – who, after all, are not above the law – and hold them to the same standard as citizens, nothing will change. Until people see our police officers – our model citizens – prosecuted for their excessive and murderous gun use, our culture of gun-loving will remain, and we will unfortunately be burdened with seeing more and more tragedies like this unfold every day.