More than three months after Louisville police forcefully entered the home of Breonna Taylor and fired multiple shots, striking her at least eight times, the officers involved still have not faced charges. Without video evidence, like there was for the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, there’s no “indisputable proof of wrongdoing,” the city’s deputy general counsel said (though one officer is being fired, Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher recently announced.) The police have continued to defend their use of force in the case, asserting that they only fired their guns after Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, initially shot at them.
Taylor’s killing has played a large part in spurring calls for police reform, but unfortunately, police shootings are not an uncommon event: nationally, police have consistently shot and killed about 1,000 people every year since 2015. And multiple studies have shown that a higher prevalence of guns owned by citizens leads to a higher local rate of shooting deaths by police, suggesting that America’s gun violence epidemic is a large part of police killings, and vice versa. While systemic racism is at the heart of police violence, experts say the role of guns—and the police’s fear of guns—is not to be ignored. A holistic solution to police violence, they say, must include the tightening gun laws.
“It’s a mixed issue,” says Kris Brown, president of Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. “But there’s no question that the role of more guns in our society has had, and will continue, to have a real impact [on police violence].”
More guns, and more police shootings
Crime is more likely to be lethal in the U.S. than in other developed countries because of the high presence of guns here, and that plays into interactions with police, as well. It’s a recurrent story that a police officer reaches for their firearm because of the fear that the civilian might have a gun. The Washington Post has been tracking police shootings since 2015, and found that more than half the people shot and killed by police in the past five years were armed. That fear is more likely in places where guns ownership rates are higher.
A 2019 joint study between Northeastern University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health sought to find correlations between gun availability and fatal police shootings. Using data of civilians shot and killed by police between 2015 and 2017, the researchers found that police shootings were 40% more likely in states with more guns. Residents of the 10 highest gun-owning states were 3.6 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than in the bottom five gun-owning states. Though the study didn’t explicitly detail the behavioral causes of the shootings, the researchers proposed that police anxiety during an encounter is heightened in areas where guns are more prevalent.
This relationship held true even for police shootings of civilians who were completely unarmed, they found, suggesting that the fear alone that a civilian may have a gun plays a bigger role in shootings than the legitimate evidence of a weapon. Research pointing to police being more trigger-happy because they’re afraid is “not to excuse it,” notes Deborah Azrael, one of the Harvard researchers. Though it wasn’t reported in the paper, Azrael says they also found a racial component: the relationship between firearm ownership and being killed by police was stronger for Black victims than for white victims. The Washington Post found that 40% of unarmed people shot and killed in 2015 were Black (though that percentage has steadily declined since).
John Roman, senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, did a similar study in 2018 in collaboration with Vox, in which he found that there was a positive correlation between the states with both higher gun ownership and more permissive gun laws, and killings by police. Roman tells Fast Company that, once you layer structural biases against Black people on top of this, “it is reasonable to conclude that there’s a racial disparity in the likelihood that the police will fear you more. And will be more likely to shoot you.”
The NRA plays a large part in spurring such fear and racism, Brown says. The organization disseminates fear-mongering ads and messaging that recommends that we’re safer if we’re all armed—”unless you’re a Black Panther,” she adds. “Everything that they do has a racist overtone.”
Solving police violence, Brown says, needs a holistic approach. It’s “an issue of violence that eclipses the role of the gun,” she says. “It’s going to take addressing systemic racism in our society in a meaningful way. It’s going to take enhancing and strengthening the gun laws in this country that fuel a belief, no matter who you are, that someone walking down the street may very likely have a gun.”
The organization has been taking a multipronged approach, using the channels of Congress, the courts, and communities by advocating for the passage of police reform bills, pressing for violence intervention funding in localities around the country, and working with community-based violence intervention groups like Washington, D.C.’s Alliance of Concerned Men. When people discuss defunding the police, she says, that means their tax dollars can be used to invest in communities in ways that better ensure everyone’s safety.
But strengthening loose gun laws should also be part of that work, and all the experts agree that the most relevant to address are ones that are helping to increase the ubiquity of “crime guns,” or firearms that enter the criminal marketplace through lax sales laws and bad tracing practices. There’s a “grossly negligent oversight of how guns are sold,” Brown says.
A lot of guns are sold through private, federally unlicensed dealers at gun shows, which is legally allowed because of what’s informally known as the “gun show loophole.” In many instances, these guns are sold in bulk. But laws have also made it difficult for the the ATF, the only agency permitted to trace guns through their custody chain, to track where the guns end up or if they’re used in crimes. A policy called the Tiahrt Amendment bars the agency from creating a public database. All these loopholes need to be closed to increase transparency, experts say, which could then dissipate the fear of illegal guns.
Roman also recommends safer storage policies, and penalties for improper storage, which he says would help to “dramatically create a lot of info for police to use to understand their actual risk.” On June 16, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina also proposed adding the closing of the so-called Charleston loophole—which allows dealers to sell guns to anyone after three days if the FBI hasn’t responded with background check approval within that time—to a police reform bill.
But many reformists argue that the onus shouldn’t only fall on civilian guns. Along with recent calls to defund the police have been calls for disarming the police. Unarmed police are the norm in countries like England and Wales, where no fatal police shootings in a two-year stretch between 2012 and 2014, and in Iceland, where a third of the population owns guns. Gudmundur Oddsson, a professor of sociology, told Quartz that Icelandic police do not carry weapons because “arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents.”
Experts think disarmament is possible, at least in some fashion. “I think the idea that an armed [law enforcement officer] needs to respond to every call for service is incredibly inefficient,” Roman says. He supports sending unarmed mental health workers out to mental health 911 calls. On June 15, Albuquerque’s mayor announced the city would send unarmed social workers and housing specialists to calls related to inebriation, homelessness, addiction, and mental health.
Azrael agrees with these approaches, too. At the School of Public Health, she also works on the association between firearms and suicides, and uses an analogy from a suicidal Iraq War vet she once worked with to this broader gun violence issue. The vet, who used to sleep with a gun under his pillow, slowly weaned himself off by gradually placing the weapon further and further away from him, because he knew it was making him more fearful. “I think we kind of need to do that as a culture,” she says.