As I See It: War in the streets

Every murder is tragic.

Every shooting is tragic but the drug war attitude has distorted our perceptions.

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The number of mass shootings in the U.S. was declining and had reached a low by 2015. Then it started climbing dramatically. I’ll leave it to the reader to find a correlation with some other event in 2015. The number of shootings by police officers may have gone up in that time period also, or just additional coverage. When the police see a bullet as a solution to every problem, others may see implied permission to solve their problems with bullets. There used to be a policy that an officer only shoots in self-defense, defense of innocents or to stop a felon. We need to re-establish that policy. It says on many police cars “protect and serve.” It is hard to see how summarily killing 1,000 people a year fits that motto.

In America, the risk of being shot is higher than in Europe. Internationally, we are close to the median. Weapon ownership is enshrined in our Constitution, for reasons many people don’t comprehend. Not being legal does not make weapons go away. It just limits law-abiding people from having them. Criminals, insurgents, police, secret-police, spies, militias, and armies will obtain whatever they want. In the 20th century, over 100 million unarmed civilians were murdered by government. Mass shootings make the news but you are more likely to be shot by a trigger-happy police officer than a miscreant with an AR; especially if your skin is dark. If it is acceptable for “law enforcement” to use this deadly force promiscuously, it creates a permissive climate that shooting is an acceptable response to any affront. Wyatt Earp and Wild-Bill Hickok were not admired for their negotiating skills.

Armies around the world resisted new rapid-fire weapons, from breach loaders to early machine guns. They were concerned about the cost and availability of ammunition. Many military rifles have a selector switch between one shot per trigger pull and multiple shot operation. Police departments in America have adopted the 17-round semi-automatic and now trigger-happy officers can shoot anything that offends. Maybe they should go back to the six gun or pay for every bullet fired in action out of their own pocket. We went from “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” on Bunker Hill to “shoot first, ask questions later” in later war. Most soldier’s weapons in World War II held less than nine rounds and half never fired a shot. When it takes longer to reload, you make every shot count. When you have 17 rounds in the clip and two more clips on your belt, all free, and no trigger safety, shoot first then reload sounds like sound policy.

I was taught “Do not point the muzzle at anything you do not intend to destroy.” Snipers promise “one shot, one kill.” Terrorists spray and pray. Mainland officers have emptied their weapon into a “suspect” who was already disabled, or retreating. Responsibility starts at the top, government by example. Killing the suspect may save the state the cost of a trial, but it assures an expensive lawsuit.

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A big part of the problem is qualified immunity, an insidious principle that snuck into our legal system through the back door. Its official reference goes back only to 1967 when the Supreme Court recognized the dilemma of a peace officer’s awesome responsibility. Several subsequent decisions recognized the situation but failed to offer much guidance or issue a definitive ruling. Twenty-seven consecutive Congresses have failed to take action to clarify this ambiguity. This has cost thousands of lives and uncountable millions in unnecessary litigation and prison time.

Our justice concept, innocent until proven guilty, includes the Blackstone formulation. “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Somehow, drug war policing has turned that on its head. When in doubt, shoot-it-out and get it over with before shift change; implies to some others that it’s acceptable behavior.