The country can’t demilitarize local police without strengthening gun control. The rise in police access to military-style weaponry is directly linked to weaknesses in American gun laws.
The first federal gun control law, The National Firearms Act, was a response to Prohibition-era criminals acquiring Thompson submachine guns, giving them more firepower than police and enabling them to commit mass shootings, such as the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago.
Decades later, the Los Angeles Police Department formed the country’s first SWAT — Special Weapons and Tactics — unit in 1971 to match criminals who had been outgunning the average patrol officer.
The National Firearms Act was amended in 1986 to ban all new automatic firearms in the aftermath of cartel-fueled gun violence in Miami’s "Cocaine Cowboys" era in the 1980s. While that largely removed fully automatic weapons from criminals’ hands and saved lives, production of nearly identical models, available only as semi-automatics, went unabated until the federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. That ban had a fatal flaw: It left millions of semiautomatic weapons, which can fire single rounds in rapid succession, still in circulation.
That flaw would become apparent during the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, in which two career bank robbers, armed with AR-15s and AK-47-style assault rifles and body armor, conducted one of the most vicious shootouts in U.S. history. The gunmen reportedly fired more than 1,100 rounds and kept dozens of Los Angeles officers at bay for almost an hour. The police were only armed with pistols and pump-action shotguns. The officers then rushed into a nearby gun store and commandeered AR-15s to fight back.
Months later, the Defense Department sent the Los Angeles Police Department 600 surplus M-16s— the military version of the AR-15. The incident sparked a nationwide shift in police departments across the country. Even local patrol units became armed to the hilt.
That massive shift in the power dynamic between police and criminals could only happen because Congress appropriately banned semi-automatic military-style rifles in 1986.
Local law enforcement received even more military surplus equipment as the War on Terror dragged on in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Under the Pentagon’s 1033 program, civilian police forces around the United States began to acquire fully armored vehicles, helmets, military-grade body armor and guns and more guns.
The federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Lobbying by the National Rifle Association has kept the law from being resurrected.
The NRA successfully lobbied for open carry laws in states around the country, adding more fuel to our current tinderbox of national protests by letting armed citizens — almost exclusively white — roam about freely with semi-automatic military-style rifles slung over their shoulders.
As a Black native of north St. Louis County who grew up two miles from Ferguson, I witnessed the horror of militarized police firsthand when I came home for Thanksgiving following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. The audacity of the armed-to-the-teeth St. Louis County Police Department made my hometown feel like an occupied territory and made me feel I was the enemy — a collective trauma that residents of Minneapolis and other cities have come to experience.
Is there any hope of ramping up the country’s gun control laws and demilitarizing the police?
Any attempt will have gun rights advocates and their defenders on Capitol Hill crying foul. But as a licensed gun owner in Massachusetts who has participated in recreational shooting sports such as trap shooting, I see right through their arguments.
Massachusetts has had strict gun control laws since 1998 — among the strictest in the country. It has banned the sale and transfer of semi-automatic rifles since 2016. Crime hasn’t gone up, fascism — at least on the local level — hasn’t gone up. Safety, on the other hand? It’s a good bet.
Despite the successful ban, Massachusetts police carved out an exemption in 2014 to let them buy and sell assault rifles for their own personal use. Beacon Hill should close this loophole as part of this year’s police reform legislation. Since a majority of state residents don’t trust them to handle tear gas and other less lethal weapons while on duty, why should the police get to play with lethal non-issue AR-15s and other banned rifles when they’re off-duty?
Take away military-style weapons from the public and you take away the police’s excuse for possessing an armored-personnel carrier with water cannon.
This arms race between citizens and their constabulary is a vicious, self-serving cycle of destruction and violence that must be broken once and for all.
We can start to break this cycle at the ballot box on Nov. 3 by electing a new president and Congress committed to demilitarizing the police by enacting a permanent assault weapons ban.
Chip Goines, who was born near Ferguson, Mo., is a Boston-based community writer and activist. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post and on the Reuters wire service.