Nothing that happens, happens in isolation. That’s sometimes called “the butterfly effect,” the controversial assertion (linked to chaos theory) that a butterfly flapping its wings will eventually cause a hurricane in China.
The various human and social consequences of gun ownership are much less theoretical. A recent study conducted by Vox connects America’s widespread gun ownership to our epidemic of police shootings.
The study was prompted by the recent shooting of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s back yard. Police thought the cellphone he was holding was a gun. This fatal error is increasingly common.
Officers have shot people after mistaking wrenches and badges for guns. Cops have shot people thinking that they’re reaching for a firearm when they’re really pulling up loose-fitting shorts. Police have shot multiple people thinking that a toy gun was a real firearm.
In all fairness, police have plenty of reasons to believe a target is armed. The United States has more guns in the hands of its citizens than any other country in the world. According to recent estimates, America has more guns than people.
“Police officers in the United States in reality need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”
This is one potential reason, experts said, that the US has far more police shootings than other developed nations. A 2015 analysis by the Guardian found that “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years.” Between 1990 and 2014, police in England and Wales shot and killed 55 people.
The Vox study, conducted with a researcher at the University of Chicago, established a correlation between weaker gun laws that facilitate higher rates of gun ownership and elevated numbers of killings by police officers. Correlation, of course, is not causation, but the results are suggestive. The researchers compared state-level gun laws to each state’s fatal police shootings.
The results: There is a correlation between killings by police officers and states’ gun control laws and gun ownership rates. The stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings. The higher the gun ownership rates, the more police killings. (You can see the raw data here and the comparison data here.)
As the researchers noted,
That suggests that while America has to address a whole host of issues to bring down its levels of police killings — from department-level policies to systemic racism — it also may be prudent to start thinking of police killings as inherently linked to America’s gun problem in general.
According to the article, the U.S. doesn’t have appreciably more crime than other countries, but we do have more violence associated with that crime. As one expert put it, people everywhere get into arguments and fights. But in the US, it’s much more likely that when a guy gets angry, he’ll pull out a gun and shoot someone.
There’s an old saying that even paranoids have enemies. Police who mistake wrenches and cell phones for guns are wrong, and they need to be trained to verify first rather than shoot first. But America’s gun culture is one reason they’re paranoid.