Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why Police Reform Will Continue to Fail Without Increased Gun Control

By Elizabeth RenePublished January 9, 2022

Throughout the past few decades, ongoing efforts have been made by federal policymakers, state and local officials, and communities to combat police brutality. However, current solutions fail
Throughout the past few decades, ongoing efforts have been made by federal policymakers, state and local officials, and communities to combat police brutality. However, current solutions fail to consider gun ownership and gun violence, an issue that makes American policing different from that of other developed nations. As long as policymakers fail to acknowledge how gun control shapes police conduct, including during nonviolent calls of duty, trust between police departments and the communities they serve will continue to erode as a result of police violence.

Following the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, national attention was directed towards the need for major police reform. Policy recommendations for state and local departments were largely limited to conversation around de-escalation tactics, racial bias training, or defunding police departments entirely. Given that black Americans are at least three times more likely to be shot by police compared to white Americans, it’s undeniably imperative that steps need to be taken to reduce systemic police brutality, while improving overall accountability and transparency. However, while police are also more likely to shoot and kill an individual in the United States compared to police within other developed nations, it is equally crucial that gun reform become incorporated into the narrative surrounding police reform. 

Coupled with the fact that the United States currently maintains the highest murder rate among all developed nations, it has the “most civilian-owned firearms in the world.” This metric effectively means that more than one gun is available for every American citizen. This significant difference in gun availability can largely be accredited to the cultural and constitutional association with guns as a civilian safety measure within the United States Constitution, as well as to a subsequent lack of adequate gun control policy. 

With that said, it’s important to note that the issue of gun violence isn’t merely the result of the United States having more violence than other nations. Rather, the issue lies within the fact that guns increase the chances that a non-violent interaction escalates into a deadly one. An overwhelming body of research links increased gun ownership to increased violence, which holds equally true for civilian-civilian and civilian-police interactions. 

This unparalleled availability of guns among citizens within the United States makes it so that police officers must approach every call with the possibility that a civilian might be carrying an armed weapon. Even in calls involving nonviolent matters, such as homelessness or mental health, police are prepared to execute the use of force if needed. The discretion police have in determining whether a threat requires the lethal use of force or not can be traced back to the “tough on crime” legislation and federal mindset that ensued during the post-Civil rights era and onward. 

Because modern policing was historically in response to the rise in violent crime, one must question why police have demonstrated greater militarization when violent crime has on average decreased by more than 70% in the United States since 1993. As noted, the answer for this unexplainable aggressiveness lies in the fact that the United States has “added twice as many guns as people'' since the mid-1990s and, therefore, has doubled the threat that a police officer could be harmed on duty. As a result, this police paranoia that has served to counteract the surge in gun ownership has simultaneously served to shape the persistent rate of police brutality amongst marginalized communities. 

The concern among police that civilians may be carrying a concealed weapon in a seemingly nonviolent call is undeniably valid, especially given that the largest number of instances of gun confiscation by police corresponds to traffic stops. In fact, nearly 42.3% of the New York Police Department’s gun arrests took place during vehicle stops in 2020. At the same time, when guns create a violent environment by which police are able to leverage the use of force, any perceived threat can be used to permit acts of racial bias and/or police brutality.  

The fact of the matter is that “when guns are abundant, civilians are more likely to kill civilians and cops, and cops, in turn, are more likely to kill civilians.” Therefore, the wide availability of guns in the U.S makes efforts to reform law enforcement all the more complex. Just as increasing gun usage can lead to increased violence, decreasing access to guns can work to do the exact opposite. Because 1,000 people are killed by police every year––with black Americans comprising a substantial portion of this metric––introducing the topic of gun control within conversations surrounding police reform can both save lives and build greater trust between local departments and communities suffering from police brutality.