Police shootings in the US are frighteningly common. FBI data suggests that 410 US citizens were “justifiably” killed by the police in 2012 alone. In comparison, last year in the UK, there was not one fatal shooting. Gun laws in the US are the clear cause of this gap. The rarity of armed officers in the UK reflects the difficulty for ordinary citizens to acquire firearms. In America the situation is drastically different. More than a third of American households claim to own guns and roughly 10,000 people are killed every year by firearms in the US. This abundance of guns among the civilian population has led to the dangerous over-arming of law-enforcers. George Zimmerman is a clear example of this fact, being only a member of the Neighborhood Watch team when he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
It’s no surprise that the threat of armed civilians produces trigger-happy officers, but what is deeply worrying is that civilians whether innocent or guilty can be at risk. The country’s gun laws not only acts as justification for officers to bear arms but also, through fear of armed civilians, can even give officers incentives to use them. The recent tragedy of Michael Brown’s death brings into serious doubt America’s justification in arming so many of its officers. The 18 year-old killed this month in Missouri was unarmed and running away from the police officer when he was shot and killed. This case, more than others, appears motivated by police aggression rather than reasonable self-defence. Brown was shot 6 times and eyewitnesses even claim that he had his hands up when the fatal bullets were shot. It is bad enough that innocent civilians can be killed on the false grounds of self-defence, but even worse that because of the sheer number of firearms provided that they can fall into the hands of potentially irresponsible and aggressive officers.
The reaction to the unrest in Ferguson, the town where Brown was shot, has become a worrying illustration of the hyper-militarisation of America’s security forces. The nickname “Fergustan”, adopted by social media, reflects the war-zone like image of the town occupied by tanks and the heavily armed National Guard. In a place where the police force is already deeply misrepresentative of the civilian population (6% of Ferguson’s police officers are black compared to 65% of its total population) the visible result has been a clear ‘Us and Them’ divide between the security forces and civilians. For many the National Guards’ forceful tactics in attempting to control the situation have compounded the problem. Admittedly there are pockets of armed civilian protesters but for those peaceful protestors who have suffered rubber bullets and tear gas attacks, it must feel like the unwarranted police violence displayed in the shooting of Michael Brown is only continuing. A second fatal police shooting on Tuesday shows that the situation is far from improving. At the moment the only attempt to combat those few protestors carrying firearms seems to be the threat of even greater firepower against them. Such a response only strengthens the widely held view that firearms are integral to an individual’s freedom against the state.
Regardless of the outcome of affairs in Ferguson, the number of police shootings each year leaves no doubt that other teens will lose their lives like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown before them. It’s clear that racial strife lies at the root of the problems in Ferguson but the gun issue alongside it should also be recognised. Furthermore, it is an issue where one solution (disarming US civilians and police) seems too obvious to be ignored.
John Morse is a second year classicist at University College, in his first term of writing for Oxstu, and has a keen interest in current affairs and sport.