Do Police Need Assault Rifles?

Graphic by Kaiwen Zhou

By Eddie Fleming
Opinions Contributor

Even though basic logic dictates that law enforcement needs to be well equipped in order to effectively do their jobs, lessening the amount and extremity of the weapons our police carry is not only reasonable but beneficial to the police and the community.

According to the Library of Congress police officers typically carry a taser, handcuffs, pepper spray and a baton. Most countries, like the United States, additionally, arm their officers with guns. However, in Norway, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (with the exception of Northern Ireland) only special units of policemen carry firearms.

The basic necessities of police such as handcuffs and a baton are beneficial as they give our officers more tools for bringing in criminals alive, rather than shooting citizens who try to resist arrest. However with more policemen having access to larger firearms, what is the effect on the community when police are more militarized?

Surprisingly, the tools that seem integral to police officers today have only become normal in the past decade. 9/11 sparked a subsequent explosion of spending on defense and earlier the 1033 program was implemented, allowing local enforcement to request military equipment which is then approved by the Department of Defense. NPR reports that the 1033 program has provided local enforcement with thousands of pieces of military grade equipment, such as 79,288 assault rifles, 600 armored vehicles which withstand grenades known as MRAP, 479 bomb detector robots and 50 airplanes.

Equipment used in war zones are now common in local police stations, which has resulted in the unnecessary militarization of the United State’s police force.

Recently the increase in militarized weaponry has been a direct response to the increase in mass shootings in the United States. According to CNN, between 2011 and 2014 the frequency of these mass attacks has tripled. Currently, the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population but has 31% of the world’s mass public shootings.

The increase in terror has certainly provided a reason for our police forces to become more diligent in trying to protect the people, but have the police gone too far?

Getting rid of a police department’s M16 assault rifles is reasonable as there is virtually no chance of those assault rifles actually being necessary. Assault rifles and heavy tanks require heavy opposition and the majority of communities in the United States simply do not have that.

Even if citizens carry firearms, policemen do not have to. For example, in Iceland where the Washington Post finds that 30 percent of citizens own guns, police are not permitted to carry guns and there were no gun homicides reported in 2012. Thus, other strategies can be used to de-escalate or arrest suspected criminals. Police just need to try them.

Even more so, the accessibility of these weapons leads them to be easily abused. The story of police shootings and killing people for no clear reason is depressingly familiar, and especially so when considering the fact that the victims of these events are to a disproportionate extent people of color and/or people who suffer from mental illness.

Abuse even extends to non-lethal weapons. Pepper spray and tasers are at their core, methods of enforcing compliance through pain. As of such, they lend themselves easily to brutality. The Atlantic explains that police officers in the United States are uniquely trained to fear the attacker and always be vigilant. The Atlantic furthers that policemen enter the force with an untrusting view of the people they are supposed to protect, increasing the abuse of the weapons police carry.

Obviously, this issue has two sides to it as the police need to act protectively to prepare themselves for the worst possible situation. We can’t ask our policemen to risk their lives by not treating every situation vigilantly, but we do need to examine potential alternative routes to ensure that we protect our citizens as well.

The Atlantic quantifies that officers were assaulted in about 0.09 percent of all interactions, were injured in some way in 0.02 percent of interactions, and were feloniously killed in 0.00008 percent of interactions. This means that the vast majority of the time, officers distrust has little statistical backing.

Ultimately, a common phrase among cops sums up their weapons first mindset: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” The statement reinforces that the police feel as though going to court is a much better option than risking ending up dead.

According to CNN, Police officers are trained to shoot to kill because shooting to injure makes the target much smaller as the officer would have to aim for moving arms and legs, and also could potentially make the officer the victim of return fire. The shooting heavy strategy is a defensive mechanism to protect the officer.

With recent technology, officers have been taught to continue to fire multiple rounds and assess the situation while firing to ensure that they protect themselves; however, this can often result in the death of the suspect.

Safety is important, but if police were trained to de-escalate situations instead of shoot first, they would not need such heavy weaponry and would still maintain safety in the community and for themselves. By removing the weapon, the officer would either use less harmful weapons such as tasers to bring suspects or be trained to communicate with suspects.

This effect can be seen in Britain who has one of the world’s most limited gun carrying police forces. The Economist examines data from the FBI and finds that even after accounting for the difference in population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than the United States citizens. Additionally, in total British police officers fired their weapons only three times, while 409 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police officers in the same year.

Even though, police officers need to armed and well prepared to deal with serious threats, many of the daily threats police officers face do not warrant such heavy weaponry. Police officers should have some of this weaponry at the station in case of very serious crimes but not carry them around or have such large quantities.

The logic is simple; if you have military weaponry you are more likely to use it. Ultimately, unless we want our officers to behave like soldiers we should not arm them like soldiers. Police brutality is a concern in America, there is no need to heap explosives and ammunition onto the existing garbage fire.

None of this is to say all police officers act this way. Plenty of police are moral humans, that do their utmost to uphold the law and keep citizens safe.

Clearly, we need to think about the safety of our officers as well as the safety of our citizens. It is not unreasonable for our officers to be armed but the degree to which they are armed, and the means by which they use their weapons certainly must be reexamined.

Whether a police officer can be trusted with weapons, lethal or not, may have an obvious answer. However, does that answer change if the officer is in camouflage, toting grenade launchers, and riding around in twenty-ton mine resistant vehicles?

This opinion reflects the views of a single party and in no way reflects the views of the newspaper.