Speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention paid lip service to “blue lives matter” by expressing their abiding and unconditional support for law enforcement officers and their families. None, however, expressed the slightest inclination to do anything about the primary threat to the lives of police officers, especially in our cities: The widespread availability of firearms designed to kill people as efficiently as possible. The bitter truth is that the culture warriors who dominate the Republican Party view dead cops as collateral damage in the battle to defeat gun control.
An incident occurred in North Miami, Florida, on the first day of the convention that illustrates how dangerous encounters with police officers can be not only for the police officers but also for innocent civilians. An unarmed therapist was shot by a police officer while trying to help his autistic patient. The officer’s union claims that the officer intended to shoot the autistic man, mistaking a toy truck held by the man for a gun, and shot the therapist by accident. My guess is that regardless of whatever else we find out about the incident it will turn out to be another case in which the fear of the presence of a gun caused a tragedy or near-tragedy.
We have to feel for the injured therapist. But we also have to be able to feel for the officer who fired the shots in order to understand the nature of what is happening in our cities and what needs to be done about it. There is no doubt that there are racist police officers and there are police departments in which the systems intended to remove officers who pose a potential threat to the public do not work. It also is true, however, that there are persons intent on harming police officers; there also are cities so awash in drugs, gangs, and guns that anyone who lives or works there, including police officers, is at risk of being shot. At the end of the day it is the fact that every criminal, terrorist, gang banger, and troubled individual can get his or her hands on a gun that escalates bad situations into deadly ones.
This year the American Medical Association labeled gun violence a public health crisis. The Republican platform labels pornography, but not gun violence, as a public health crisis despite the fact that approximately 30,000 men, women, and children die each year at the barrel of a gun. The platform states that no additional gun controls are necessary and specifically opposes attempts to limit the size of magazines and restrict the ownership of assault rifles.
The Republican position stands in stark contrast to the views of the vast majority of the chiefs of police in our major metropolitan areas. Police chiefs have a different perspective that comes from being responsible for the safety of the men and women under their command. They also understand a few things that not everyone does. They know, for example, that an officer must be taught that, if the officer waits to fire at a person until the person aims a gun directly at the officer, the officer is unlikely to be able to get a shot off before the person takes a shot at the officer. In other words, if an officer does not recognize that an object in the hand of a suspect is a gun until it is aimed at the officer, the officer may wind up dead. Is there any wonder that officers get nervous when they believe that a gun is present?
Police chiefs also realize that it is nonsense that only “skilled” shooters can do the type of damage done by the murderer who killed five police officers in Dallas. A person with an assault rifle with a high-capacity magazine filled with armor-piercing bullets who finds a perch overlooking dozens of police officers standing together out in the open does not have to be a trained sniper to kill a lot of officers. The chilling fact is that a more experienced gunman could have killed more officers. It was the lethality of the weapon that mattered.
The group that represents the chiefs of the largest police departments in this country, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, has advocated for years for measures such as reinstating the assault weapon ban, banning high-capacity magazines, closing the gun show loophole in background checks, and banning internet ammunition sales. Unless I missed it, no one from that organization was invited to speak at the RNC to discuss its recommendations.
The proposition by the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, that tougher enforcement of existing laws is the solution to the shooting of police officers is patently absurd. Most people who decide to shoot it out with police officers expect to die. How will the “law and order” approach deter them? Does Mr. Trump believe that someone who shoots an assault weapon loaded with armor-piercing bullets at police officers from a parking garage is worried about going to prison?
As President Obama observed, many of our cities (including his own, Chicago) have become very dangerous places to police. Here is the win-win scenario: When police officers in those cities feel safer, the citizens with whom they come in contact, white and black, will be safer. Here is my message to the Republican Party: Spare us the blue lives matter rhetoric until the party demonstrates that it actually means it by taking concrete steps to protect the lives of police officers, including banning assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and armor-piercing ammunition, and closing loopholes in state and federal laws that make a semi-automatic handgun available to almost any criminal that wants one.
July 22, 2016