Police weaponry is a source of fundamental confusion for me. For a force that is designed to protect the public and ensure public safety, they seem to be well-equipped to take lives rather than preserve them. A policeman with a lethal weapon at his hip placed in high-stress situations constantly appears to be a recipe for disaster. And it has proven to be so. Police shootings of individuals who may or may not pose a real threat to officer safety have been present since the police have had guns.
My question then becomes, why do they have lethal weapons in the first place? Why does the government not strip away their ability to impose lethal force on individuals in light of these fatal shootings? Anyone I ask immediately looks at me like I have lost my mind. “Take away their guns?” they say. “So then what are they supposed to use, a Taser? That would never work against a criminal with a gun!”
The response is valid. Tasers have limited range compared to handguns and are much less accurate. A bullet kills much faster and more reliably than a Taser can effectively subdue someone. But, I then think about innovations in military technology. Guns have increased in effectiveness exponentially in a relatively short time. We have progressed from muskets and bayonets to machine guns – including a Metal Storm gun prototype that can supposedly fire 1 million rounds per minute. If we can make such strides in the effectiveness of lethal technology, why can we not do the same for non-lethal technology and equip police with that?
A class I have taken this semester called Life Within Capitalism provides the answer. In my final paper for that class, I explored how innovation occurs within a capitalist system. I studied the car industry, which in the 1960s vehemently opposed basic safety regulations by our standards like seat belts and instead innovated based on style and speed. Today, the industry opposes fuel efficiency standards which have shown to cut emissions drastically thereby helping the environment and the consumer save money on gas. The reason for this opposition to innovation that would obviously benefit human life is that profit is the driving force for innovation, not human benefit. “Safety doesn’t sell,” a leading automotive general manager said in the 60s, “style does.”
For weaponry, there are dozens of gun companies all competing to make the most effective lethal weapons possible. The Department of Defense, conversely, only lists 14 current non-lethal counter-personnel weapons available. The market for lethal weapons is clearly more robust than the market for non-lethal weapons, so capitalism dictates that weapon companies should continue to improve upon and sell lethal weapons. Therefore, the burden falls on the government to regulate the innovation of non-lethal weapons. But the government, instead, adopted the 1033 program in 1997 and has consistently provided local forces with former military weapons. In the interest of ensuring public safety, as is the police’s job, the government has the sole ability to dictate the innovation of non-lethal weapons and eliminate the police’s lethal capability. Capitalist interests dictate that the markets themselves will not do so, so the government must.