When I walked to work at 5:30, I ran into the early-morning janitor of my building, a black guy, and he wanted to talk to me (normally he’s pretty laconic). He told me, “Be safe out there,” and it took me a minute to figure out what he wanted to say. It turned out that he was in despair at what’s happening all over the U.S.: black males killed by cops, often without provocation, and now, last night, five police officers killed and six wounded in Dallas—in protests against the apparent murders of restrained suspects (or any black suspects) by police. (Note: it’s not yet clear if those who killed the cops were on the side of the protestors.)
The janitor’s solution was to get rid of guns. “Why do we need all those guns?”, he said, almost in tears. I agreed. That will go a long way to eliminating this kind of violence. If police aren’t living under a hair-trigger mentality, in which they think a suspect can shoot them at any time—and this fear isn’t unjustified—they’ll continue to act precipitously. Too precipitiously, for they can’t just gun down someone who’s reaching for his identification, especially if they ask him to. Yes, we should ban private ownership of any guns, and that will help some.
But it won’t stop the madness completely, for it’s clear that there’s still an animus towards black people—a bigotry—on the part of cops. How else do you explain why cops kill a man restrained on the ground, like Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge? Why have Chicago police repeatedly shot unarmed men, and even tried to cover up the videos showing the deed?
What won’t solve the problem are riots and mass shootings of police, like those in Dallas last night. Nor will it do to demonize every police officer in America, for we know that not all of them are trigger-happy racists. We need to get rid of bigotry, get rid of guns, and make the police wear bodycams, with the stipulation that they’ll face serious charges if they themselves break the law. Investigations and reports of police departments, like that happening now in Chicago, may dampen the cycle of police violence.
But don’t recite the Second Amendment to me, for that’s about guns for militias, not private citizens. And don’t claim, in response to effective gun bans in other civilized nations, that “This is America!” How are we different (besides the proliferation of guns) from Scotland or Australia, where gun bans were successful and reduced the murder rate?
Getting rid of bigotry is harder, in principle, than getting rid of guns. We need to do both, but only people like the janitor and I seem to worry much about the latter. And when we get guns out of the hands of the public, then we can proceed to disarm the cops. (Calls for disarming the police unilaterally, as some have demanded, is madness.)
But I have no confidence that this madness will stop in my lifetime. For the time being, it’s a lot easier to be safe out there if you’re white than if you’re black.