Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson six months ago this week. Four months later, two NYPD polices officers were killed, in part, as revenge. Those shootings sparked a fierce debate about policing in America, one that has pitted those concerned about police shootings of unarmed, young black men against those who feel the police need more public understanding and support in carrying out the unpredictable, dangerous work they do for the public's safety.
Yet this oppositional framing makes it easy to overlook the common enemy facing both sides: gun violence. The most constructive thing each side could do to address their concerns is work together to reduce the availability of guns to people everyone agrees shouldn't have them.
The United States is not an intrinsically more violent society than other Western democracies. The rates of violent crime here are similar to those of other developed countries. The key difference is that guns are much more likely to be involved in violence here — which, in turn, makes it much more lethal. The US homicide rate is about four times that of most European countries, largely due to our much higher rates of gun homicide. Not surprisingly, poor and minority communities bear the brunt of gun violence in this country.
The pervasiveness of firearms requires police be prepared for the worst-case scenario when approaching a suspect. Firearm-related incidents are the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers, with more than 50 officers shot dead in the course of duty last year. By contrast, no police officers were killed with firearms in England or France last year.
The life-or-death situations facing American law enforcement lead to countless high-stakes, split-second decisions. Under these conditions it becomes easy to misread a cue, such as a cell phone in the hand or an unexpected movement. Simple altercations can become lethal as the police fear the worst possibility — a firearm at play.
Evidence from other countries where guns are harder to access bears this out. In Germany, for instance, a total of six civilians were killed by police in 2011. In the United States? Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 civilians die at the hands of police each year.
Guns and their prevalence in America are most certainly the distinguishing factor in both the high numbers of police officers killed by civilians and innocent civilians killed by police.
This suggests common ground. Those worried about both police safety and communities plagued by police shootings should work together in pushing for measures that can reduce the availability of guns to people who are at high risk for harming themselves or others. Federal law already prohibits many high-risk groups — such as teenagers and people previously convicted of a felony offense — from possessing firearms, but these laws suffer from significant loopholes and inadequate enforcement.
Additional measures could reduce gun access to high-risk groups without much affecting access to guns by those legally allowed to have them. One example is laws that limit handgun purchases to one per month, which research suggests can reduce the flow of illegal guns into the underground gun market. Another example is requiring background checks for the 30 to 40 percent of all gun transactions that occur between private parties (not involving a gun dealer), which are nearly completely unregulated under present federal law. A third is easing limits on the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to monitor licensed gun dealers and make sure they are following federal law. Current law limits ATF to no more than one compliance inspection per dealer per year — no matter how many crime guns may have been traced to the store by local police.
Often discussions of gun control falter at the starting gate because it is widely assumed that Americans will never take steps to limit access to guns of any kind. But public opinion surveys show that, while an outright ban on handguns is divisive, large majorities of Americans support the types of measures described above. Even majorities of gun owners support such measures.
The problem is not that a majority doesn't support such measures, but rather that it is a "silent majority." A small but vocal group of opponents of such measures exercise disproportionate impact in the legislative process. Channeling the passion on both sides of the current debate about policing towards the shared goal of addressing gun violence might change this political dynamic.
Reducing illegal gun access is no panacea for the systemic issues that both police departments and communities of color have voiced in recent months, but it would diffuse many of the challenges that currently arise with police-citizen interactions in America. This would also save the lives of both police and young black men – a goal everyone in this debate favors.
Devah Pager is a professor of sociology and public policy at Harvard University. Jens Ludwig is a professor at the University of Chicago and director of the school's Crime Lab.