Armed and Unaccountable

Daniel Pope

11 min read

Why the gun debate cannot ignore police shootings

On 1 October 2017, at the end of a balmy day in Las Vegas, a man named Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers. He fired hundreds of rounds from the window of his suite on the 32nd floor, killed 58 people, and left hundreds wounded. He did it for no discernible reason. The resulting media frenzy filled the vacuum of information with rampant speculation.

As the grim conversation unfolded over the month, 94 people were killed by police, 88 of them with guns. Remarkably, this was below the monthly average for deaths at the hands of the police. Compared with killings by police, the number killed in mass shootings, while unconscionably high, is low enough to call into question whether they are representative of the deep causes of gun violence in America. According to Mother Jones, there were 117 deaths by mass shootings in the first 11 months of 2017, while the Washington Post's count of police killings for 2017 stood at 987 at the time of this writing. The Mapping Police Violence project's tally is higher still: according to their figures, 1,147 people died at the hands of police, of whom a disproportionate number (25%) were black. Ninety-two percent of the total were the result of police shootings.

Of course, the media has an economic incentive to emphasize the grotesque and spectacular phenomenon of the mass shooting, and the ecology of social media amplifies the sensational signal further. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting, prominent news outlets embarked on a protracted debate about the gunman's motive. What, pundits wondered, could have been the reasoning behind his actions? Was it mental illness? Was it politically driven? Some liberals on social media demanded that it be labeled "terrorism"in the service of some bleak version of equality; conservatives suggested that if members of the crowd had been armed, the attack would have been over more quickly. Meanwhile, CNN continuously mined the story for more content, dramatically revealing through a "breaking news update" that the gunman had in fact shot a hotel security guard around the time he started shooting at the crowd, not six minutes earlier.

The political discourse followed a predictable pattern. Liberals again cried out for more robust gun control policies, while the NRA joined the #resistance by endorsing regulation on "bump stocks," a small concession which would keep gun owners from turning their deadly ordnance into absurdly deadly ordnance. These moves echoed past proposed tweaks, such as the Democrats' calls following the Orlando shooting for restrictive gun regulation—for those on the terrorist watch list. This tepid response not only shifted the conversation away from right-wing violence and homophobia, but also served to subtly legitimize the endless "war on terror."

Then as now, the terms of the debate were drawn far from the material bases for the U.S.'s disproportionate rates of gun violence, while various political actors staked out narrow positions to address them. The defining difference this time is that the endless debate on the question of intention—what was the gunman's motivation?—revealed, in this case, the ultimate futility of the exercise.

Mainstream narratives around mass shootings stage a parodic reckoning with our culture of violence, aping a false moral complexity that stymies the conversation we should be having. While the unpredictability of mass shootings drives the breathless media coverage, the exposure to state violence is chillingly foreseeable and exponentially more widespread and therefore normalized. According to Samuel Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero, fully one - third of all people killed by strangers are killed by police, and 99% of the officers are not convicted of a crime. An analysis of the material causes that determine the prevalence of gun violence—most acutely illustrated by police killings—provides a useful framework through which we can understand how racial and socioeconomic inequality shapes vulnerability to violence, and simultaneously reveals why our political leaders' responses have been fundamentally misdirected and inadequate.

Disarmed and powerless

Fifty years ago, on 2 May 1967, members of the Black Panther Party showed up armed at the steps of the California state Capitol. Bobby Seale mounted the steps and read a statement calling for black people to arm themselves against the "terror" of the U.S. government's racist power structures, in protest of a state gun control bill that he argued was "aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless" while police officers with guns patrolled their neighborhoods. The next year, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968.

This is how we got our first modern-day gun control laws: to defuse the political threat of black people dissatisfied with the persistent lack of socioeconomic opportunities afforded them in the immediate aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and who dared to challenge their own exposure to gun violence at the hands of the police. As with the restrictions on freed slaves owning firearms found in the Black Codes, the 1968 Act framed a political threat as a threat of violence—an easy addition to the veil of fantasies that conservative politicians use as a pretext for the criminalization of Black political agitation. Republicans in California overwhelmingly supported the new gun control legislation. Unsurprisingly, considering their provenance, the application of these laws resulted—along with the laundry list of racial disparities in sentencing and what were at the time novel forms of criminalization—in the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color. In other words, the gun laws that we do have fit overwhelmingly into larger patterns of racist policing, creating a carceral feedback loop of increasing brutality.

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Bobby Seale at John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan

"It's crucial that we understand policing as the most coercive, most punitive, most problematic tool that the state can use to solve problems," says Alex Vitale, author of the new book The End of Policing. Even the Dallas police chief, after the fatal shooting of two of the city's police officers in 2016, said,

"We're asking cops to do too much in this country. […] Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let's have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let's give it to the cops. … That's too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems."

These latest trends reflect the long history of policing as a mechanism to secure the conditions for the reproduction of unfettered capitalism, not to ameliorate its adverse social consequences. In fact, as observed by the Black Panthers in the 1960s and ironically affirmed by Dallas' chief of police five decades later, it clearly exacerbates those very consequences.

Individualizing disorder

Most issues plaguing the country at large are realized with particular cruelty in Los Angeles. Police violence is no exception. The LAPD is one of the most murderous police forces in the country. More than a third of the 157 total killings by police in the Golden State took place in Los Angeles County. This violent phenomenon is one result of decades of neoliberal policies that have dramatically cut spending on social programs, leading to social alienation, pernicious de facto racial segregation, and unconscionable levels of economic inequality. The police, beneficiaries of decidedly non-austere government expenditures, are tasked with (violently) addressing the resulting social entropy.

Writing a case study about incarceration in California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore shows how rates of incarceration rose rapidly even as violent crime rates dropped. The argument for increasing investment in police and prisons rested on the prevalence of violence. What explains the contradiction? "In my view," she writes,

"the expansion of prison constitutes a geographical solution to socio-economic problems, politically organised by the state which is itself in the process of radical restructuring. This view brings the complexities and contradictions of globalisation home, by showing how already existing social, political and economic relations constitute the conditions of possibility (but not inevitability) for ways to solve major problems. In the present analysis 'major problems' appear, materially and ideologically, as surpluses of finance capital, land, labour and state capacity that have accumulated from a series of overlapping and interlocking crises stretching across three decades."[1]

The accumulation of surpluses under capitalism, Gilmore writes, has led to a regime of "uneven development" and inequality that prison expansion helps solve by swallowing up (incarcerating) surplus labor and creating new prison-based markets (jobs for prison guards, profit for companies that make the horrific prisoner fare) in areas with surplus land ripe for investment. Prison expansion was also linked to the expansion of finance capitalism, providing investors with an outlet, in the realm of public debt, in which to invest at a time when public spending on prisons was more politically viable than traditional infrastructural investment.[2]

Policing has also grown alongside rising property values, according to a recent study published in Social Forces.[3] The study shows that from the late 1990s to the 2000s, alongside a falling crime rate, policing increased in response to the social disorder resulting from lowered welfare spending. Beck and Goldstein write, "the reorientation toward real estate heightened the importance of guarding against not only crime, but also disorder, lifestyle nuances, loitering, and anything else that might threaten property values."[4] To make the connection even more explicit, some police departments actually embraced property value appreciation as a performance metric.[5] These trends have resulted in a great deal of horrific abuse, including violence against the mentally ill.

The growth of prisons and policing is fundamentally a political project. Richard Nixon's 1968 "law and order" campaign was a clear study in how to reframe deep social fractures for political gain. The Right used the turbulence of post-mid-sixties radical activism, like the actions of the Black Panthers mentioned above, as an excuse to criminalize their political enemies. They did this by "individualizing disorder"–reorienting the state towards criminalizing individuals instead of investing in systemic fixes[6]–and reframing social entropy as a threat to domestic security in the context of the Vietnam War and, more generally, the Cold War. Now the public dreamt of threats by enemies from within, and these enemies had a specific racialized class character in the political imagination.

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Richard Nixon in Paoli, PA during the 1968 electoral campaign

It's important to emphasize here that although there are legible historical trends that have led the U.S. to this state of affairs, none of it was predetermined. The increasing inequality of wealth and incomes since the 1970s, which cannot be disentangled from broader questions of violence, is the result of specific policies advanced by politicians and key interest groups. The conservative project to turn the social activism of the 1960s into an attack on racial minorities was only one political response to the turbulence of the times, and its success was measured in the expansion of the carceral state as a means of solving the crises of accumulation in the 1970s. These factors continue to shape the present, with violent crime rates at historic lows while private gun ownership skyrockets, alongside the increasing militarization of the state. The threat of violence justifying violence–while the underlying political and material causes of these phenomena are left totally unaddressed.

Beyond gun control

These violent political "solutions" to the social entropy resulting from unfettered capitalism have a long pedigree, and they are part and parcel of conservative political strategy. But the conservatives truly won the battle when liberals began towing the same line, culminating in President Clinton's draconian 1994 crime bill. Even as President Clinton's policies have been repudiated since by prominent liberals, the myth of the effectiveness and respectability of policing as a solution to socioeconomic problems persists in the liberal imagination. As Alex Vitale writes,

"Rather than admit the central role of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and over-policing in producing wealth for white people and denying basic life opportunities for black people, [liberals] prefer to focus on a few remedial programs backed up by a robust and 'legitimate' criminal justice system to transform black attitudes so that they are better able to compete in the labor market. As a result, black people always start from a diminished position that makes them both more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and be treated more harshly by it."

Larger police budgets and further criminalization are therefore inadequate to the task of ameliorating gun violence. So why are the solutions of decarceration and increased social spending left entirely out of the conversation? Through the frame of mass shootings, the debate on gun control in the media begins and ends with the spectacle of gratuitous violence. Fear of a spectacular morbidity is inscribed in the discourse from the beginning. Yet mass shootings are not representative of the bulk of gun violence, and the facts don't even bear out the analysis on its own terms: the majority of mass killings are actually incidents of domestic violence, and the grand majority of deaths by gun violence are from suicide.

In contemporary America, gun control legislation primarily functions to incarcerate people of color. If additional blanket gun control legislation is implemented, it is safe to assume that impoverished areas with high crime rates attributable to inadequate access to resources would attract more law enforcement, resulting in more incarceration and further expansion of the carceral state. This clearly does nothing to fix root causes, instead exacerbating tensions that would escalate into violence. The inevitable result would be more prisoners, more prisons, and more killings by police.

Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which has cause to celebrate now that the LAPD chief of police has announced his retirement, has called for the prosecution of police who kill black people. It is just and proper to hold police accountable to the law and take killer cops off the streets. But as Black Lives Matter and partner organizations have also acknowledged, this is only the first step. We must go beyond litigation if we are to decrease gun violence: we must attack the institutions that continue to reproduce it. This means reversing the trend of decreased social spending and increased police budgets; it means dismantling the carceral state and ending policing as we know it, investing instead in solutions of restorative justice that build solidarity within communities.

Critical Resistance, "a national grassroots organization building a movement to abolish the prison industrial complex," works to educate and organize around challenging the entangled interests of government and industry that work to continually reproduce incarceration and policing as a means of solving economic and social problems. Their ultimate horizon is the total abolition of police and prisons. Reimagining a society without governance through incarceration is extremely difficult; our lived experience of politics and police constrains our ability to think of radical alternatives. But Critical Resistance works to raise awareness and organize around the specific ways in which policing and incarceration function locally, which is reflected by their structure, organized around local chapters with collaborations through national working groups on issues that obtain across the country. They recognize the need to focus on the myriad concrete and local histories of how over-policing and mass incarceration have functioned to reproduce precarity and violence for so many marginalized and disenfranchised populations.

Only by focusing on these concrete histories will it be clear how to attack these structures while building an alternative to punitive justice that invests in long-term solidarity. The implicit Hobbesian worldview that subtends our current models of punitive "justice" is tautologically confirmed and reproduced by those models. The urge to cooperate and stand in solidarity with others, which is a fundamental instinct of beings whose welfare is predicated on cooperation and mutual aid, must be cultivated and encouraged by radically new models of justice. Our political positions should not be based in reaction to spectacles of mass violence or as a consequence of social entropy, but on extending access to the resources that enable our communities to thrive. This means, ultimately, dismantling the structures of capitalism that inhibit these goals.

The United States' endless wars abroad find sobering parallel in the gratuitous militarization of domestic police forces, while civilians looking to defend themselves from the threat of the state accumulate their own weapons, heightening the risk of gun violence. Meanwhile, the almost total dissolution of the social safety net correlates with the increased criminalization of marginalized communities as the primary means of resolving disorder. These forces work in concert to magnify the threat of violence among already vulnerable populations. Against this backdrop of endemic state violence, gun control laws will always be insufficient. If tomorrow we could make privately-owned weapons evaporate into thin air, armed gangs with badges would still be patrolling our most vulnerable communities and enforcing the policies of a fundamentally racist and unequal system.


  1. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, "Globalisation and U.S. prison growth: from military Keynesianism to post-Keynesian militarism," Race & Class, 40, 2/3 (1998/99),174 ↩︎

  2. Ibid. 180-181 ↩︎

  3. Brenden Beck, Adam Goldstein, "Governing Through Police? Housing Market Reliance, Welfare Retrenchment, and Police Budgeting in an Era of Declining Crime," Social Forces, 2017 Oct., pp. 1-21 ↩︎

  4. Ibid., 6 ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 7 ↩︎

  6. Gilmore, 176 ↩︎