Police Shootings Are Also Gun Violence

Emphasizing policing as the primary means of addressing shootings will only lead to more deadly confrontations between officers and the citizens they’re sworn to protect.

Sacramento demonstrators protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, on March 31 2018 (Bob Strong / Reuters)

On March 18, Stephon Clark was shot and killed by Sacramento Police officers. Responding to a call regarding a suspect breaking car windows, the two officers encountered Clark, a 22-year-old black man, who ran into his grandmother’s backyard. The officers allege they believed Clark had a gun, and can be heard on a body-camera recording yelling the word “gun” just before shooting. Clark was only carrying a cell phone. The hail of 20 bullets fired towards him shredded Clark’s body so badly that his family reportedly couldn’t properly complete ghusl, a ritual cleansing that’s part of Muslim burial rites. A family-ordered autopsy found that the majority of shots hit Clark in his back, raising the possibility that he was still fleeing when police decided to open fire.

On April 4, Saheed Vassell was shot and killed by New York City Police officers. Responding to a call regarding a suspect waving a gun, the four officers encountered Vassell, a 34-year-old black man, who allegedly “took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.” Vassell was only carrying a metal pipe. The NYPD has refused to comment on whether the officers offered a warning to Vassell. The officers fired 10 shots, striking Vassell multiple times. Members of his family fought with security staff at Kings County Hospital when they were denied access to his body. Vassell suffered from bipolar disorder.

And so on, and so on, ad nauseum. The list of black people killed or brutalized for possessing imaginary guns stretches towards the horizon. Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Terence Crutcher, and the others comprise a bloody American canon. And then there’s the group of black people killed because an officer believed that they would fire weapons they possessed: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott, and many others.

In a country currently in the grip of what appears to be an overdue reckoning with its epidemic of gun violence, it’s worth noting that police shootings are also an epidemic of gun violence. They exist alongside a multitude of other forms that run through American society and culture. Gun violence is part of the rising tide of intimate partner violence. Gun violence plays a role in the increase of suicides in black neighborhoods. Gun violence contributes to gang violence, and gun violence includes children accidentally shooting children with their parents’ guns. Gun violence is regular mass shootings in schools, but it’s also the steady attrition of solitary gun deaths here and there, everywhere, in schools in impoverished communities. Gun violence is a deep and primeval component of American life, both on behalf of the state and on behalf of the individuals who make the state.

The recognition and acknowledgement of all of those forms of gun violence exists uneasily with the current conversation being had about gun violence. When viewed in the abstract, it would appear America is in the middle of two distinct conversations about violence, and that those conversations are most often at loggerheads. On the one hand, there are the thousands pouring into the streets this week, as a series of high-profile slayings of black people by police again becomes a major rallying point for resurgent black activism. On the other hand, there are those marching to stop children from being slaughtered in school, a gross violation of the basic social compact that has only increased in frequency over the past years. The movements split along the lines of race and class, and with respect to just who is willing to listen, and to what end.

But they also share plenty of common ground. In the end, both of these movements seek to address American violence, a phenomenon so prevalent and so powerful that it can’t help but manifest in several forms.

The tragedy of the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February unleashed a burst of energy that has uniquely altered what has largely been a moribund American debate. Since then, a group of teenage survivors of that shooting have been elevated to leading roles in the discourse, and they have proven preternaturally prepared, both by experience and by talent, to lead that debate. Rallying around them, activists have led the massive March For Our Lives, shaken pro-gun stalwarts like Florida Governor Rick Scott, and challenged the National Rifle Association. They’ve taken gun-control advocacy to new prominence, a remarkable accomplishment in a country where the Second Amendment has often played an accessory role to racial animae that can seem intractable, if not foundational.

But advocacy often fails to acknowledge the older epidemics of violence, too often in a way that could prove detrimental. Stoneman Douglas itself has illustrated this paradox. Perhaps understandably so, the school has ramped up security measures in the wake of the shooting, increasing the number of police on school grounds and requiring clear backpacks, among other things. Black students at the school, however, have indicated that the increased police presence has put them ill at ease, and could perhaps spell danger for them.

At an April press conference, Stoneman Douglas juniors Mei-Ling Ho-Shing and Tyah-Amoy Roberts called out the March for Our Lives movement both for excluding them, and for failing to advocate for solutions that made sense for stopping the steady tide in nearby minority and poor schools, where there’ve been no mass shootings, but plenty of single shootings. “The problem [is] with having the leadership at the forefront having the same experience growing up in a neighborhood that’s safe and wealthy, where gun violence is not,” Ho-Shing said.

Their concerns offer a useful framework for understanding the tensions at the heart of gun-control advocacy and policy. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, signed by Scott on March 8, exhibits all those tensions. The law pursues many of the reforms pushed by leading advocates. It raises the minimum-purchasing age for firearms to 21, appropriates millions of dollars to mental-health programs in high schools, bans the sale of bump stocks, increases funding for school-resource officers, and gives law-enforcement officers greater authority to seize weapons from people deemed mentally ill. It’s likely that if any new federal or state laws on guns emerge after this debate, they’ll look like this—full of putatively common-sense reforms that seem to have an honest chance at both passing conservative legislatures and reducing the chances of school massacres.

But common sense ain’t always so common, so the saying goes, and laws like Florida’s could also exacerbate the running threat of state violence that has animated black uprisings from Watts in 1965 to Ferguson in 2014. Turning schools into miniature police states seems likely to amplify the danger that students of color already face at the hands of resource officers. Empowering police to confiscate firearms from people deemed unfit to hold them might sound appealing—perhaps to people who see no reason to fear police—but would result in more dangerous encounters between police and citizens of color, both armed and unarmed, and in all likelihood would result in more Saheed Vassells. Mental-health-related confrontations have been proven to be a significant driver of black deaths at the hands of police, and confiscatory policies would only increase those deaths, while also further stigmatizing mental illness.

The guiding principles of American gun-control advocacy are that there are simply too many guns, that those guns are too capable of mass carnage, and that if fewer people—especially people who exhibit a proclivity to use them for violence—had those guns would likely make everyone safer. This is undeniably so in some black and brown neighborhoods, where homicides have spiked or remained elevated, bucking national long-term trends.

But many of those with little direct experience of such neighborhoods fail to understand how the ubiquity of guns everywhere becomes a rationale for police to employ lethal force in some places, and why a turn towards confiscation will inevitably lead to a cascade of more people killed the way Stephon Clark was. Advocates also generally fail to grapple with their role in empowering heavily armed citizens with a proclivity to use those arms—on themselves, against intimate partners, and against black and brown persons—to go on patrol.

Curtailing the prevalence of gun violence is a monumental, intergenerational project that would go well beyond policies like body cameras for officers, and like bump-stock bans in stores. But those reforms that merely redirect violence and expose one community to more risk will continue widening the gaps, and continue the déjà vu of black people killed by police.