Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Police and heroism

I’ve read a lot lately about the disconnect between law enforcement and armed citizens. The discussion centers upon examples of police militarization versus cases of police heroism. Police risk their lives daily for citizens, so why is it that they don’t get more respect? More over, why is it that they don’t get more respect from the overwhelmingly patriotic ranks of the armed populous?

Before I go into specifics, I need to build some context. Although the average citizen believes that the police, TSA, FBI, and all the other acronyms are out there to protect them, the armed citizen knows better. Law enforcement exists to protect society as a whole and not individuals in particular. This isn’t my opinion, it’s established case law. Police have no obligation to protect the individual citizen; rather their job is to protect society from the individual. In order to accomplish this task, they are provided with great power and latitude. That power is somewhat tolerable because it is bound and directed to serve the good of the community; to wit, there are checks and balances established to protect citizens from legal excess. The point being that the protection afforded by the government is a byproduct of its mandate to protect society and not a personal duty to any specific taxpayer.

That’s all well and good if you’re an average citizen with negligible exposure to the thin blue line. However, if you are a gun owner than life is a bit more challenging. I say this not because firearm possession will call down the law, but because owning a gun holds a citizen to a higher legal and ethical standard. In my state of Maryland, gun ownership requires me to affirm that I am not a habitual drug user, drunkard, felon, mentally disabled, subject of a restraining order, as well as subjecting me to the infamous background check. There are a limited number of places I can legally take a gun outside my home. The gun has to be transported in a separate locked container from the ammunition, preferably in a different part of the vehicle. The legal right to carry, concealed or otherwise, is strictly at the State’s discretion. Owning a gun not only means that I have to conduct myself as a model citizen, it also means that the very act of transporting and using my guns is heavily regulated. Most of that regulation simply affirms common sense practices we would follow regardless. But whether I would follow those statutes on my own or not, they are still there. They loom over me every time I do _anything_ with my firearms. They cast a shadow over me when I’m hundreds of miles away from my gun safe. There is always that worry that an honest mistake or misunderstanding will cause the state to revoke my good-citizen status.

Let’s add to this picture the constant attacks by the media, gun control interests, and anti-gun politicians. There is an active movement in the United States to limit private firearm ownership, if not outright banish the practice entirely. Although guns are more socially acceptable than in the past, gun owners are regularly subject to ridicule and profiling, regardless of political affiliation, religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or economic status. Outside of specifically gun-friendly zones, acknowledging firearms ownership can get one branded a racist, bigoted, ignorant reactionary or worse. So while the trend toward acceptance of firearms in America is great, firearm enthusiasts have to manage to the loudest, lowest common denominator every day if they want to be taken seriously.

That trend is frustrating, especially if you’re part of the scientific minded portion of the gun culture that studies optics, reloading, history, ballistics, metallurgy…etc. Reloaders have to work with chemical compounds, formulas, and precise machine tolerances. Long range shooters regularly employ complex math to deal with ballistic drop, wind, altitude, humidity, and velocity. Most of the shootists I know are well versed in history from the American Revolution onward if not before. It’s one thing to have your choice of football team questioned. It’s something entirely different to be branded an easily ignored idiot, especially when the root cause of that assessment is based on a hobby that involves proficiency with multiple branches of hard science.

These points are important because they explain why the average gun owner is so jaded when it comes to government. Government isn’t the enemy, but often agents of the government and society treat him as if he is a second class citizen, one step away from some terrible act of violence and intolerance. Firearms ownership requires me to ask permission to own and use a gun, something that the constitution specifically provides as an individual right. The operating assumption here is that gun ownership makes a person into a menace to society when statistics tell a completely different story. Every day gun owners have to deal with the fact that while they live within the limits of the law, the media consistently depicts them as monsters.

Now, let’s look at government agencies. Since 911, the powers of law enforcement have been greatly expanded through the patriot act and other legislation. Wiretapping without a warrant, detainment of citizens without charge, searches, and personal scans have become if not common, grudgingly accepted practices. The National Guard can be seen at airports and train stations. It seems like every other day I hear about swat teams knocking someone’s door down, like as not enforcing a no-knock warrant. Police wear bullet proof vests and carry ar15s in their cars. A recent product advertisement described a .50 caliber rifle as ideal for counter terrorism and drug interdiction. The TSA seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. The picture this paints to most of us who are already “concerned” about how government and society views us is not of a benevolent force constructed to respect and defend our freedom. Add to this picture the daily attempts by government to further limit rights that are already heavily regulated, and it can seem as though the government as a whole and police as an extension are simply waiting for gun owners to give them the slightest reason to bring down the wrath. Trust is further broken whenever a story is published that depicts police using excessive force, entrapment, and abusing civil liberties.

The average peace officer is a decent hard working person doing a difficult, risky, and often thankless job. The police I’ve encountered have always been polite and helpful. Most of the Leos I encounter in cyberspace are public servants who view their job as a sacred duty rather than a mandate to oppress (the more so since they are part of that same firearms loving community.) The challenge for the public is that we can’t assume that every boy in blue we run into is that considerate and civic minded. We have to guard against the lowest common denominator, which breeds a certain level of antipathy. It is that same peace officer who needs and deserves our respect who has the ability to complicate our life.

That is the heart of the afore mentioned disconnect. The Leos I encounter on line who act every day to truly protect and serve, often bemoan the lack of respect they engender. They see themselves as heroes, willing to sacrifice their lives daily for a seemingly ungrateful public, in this case a public comprised of fellow gun lovers. I imagine that must sting doubly hard, since the very people expressing those negative sentiments should be the ones most likely to support them. Yet it isn’t the individual that those sentiments are directed against, but that lowest common denominator I mentioned. Ask most gun owners how they feel about their country and they’ll tell you that they love it. Ask them how they feel about soldiers and police in general and they’ll tell you that they respect law enforcement. A love of firearms and patriotism have ever been bound together in the American spirit. Because of this, most gun owners I know support the police and military in the abstract. It is the practical, every-day potential for personal tragedy that gives us pause.

Finally, let’s look at Leos as heroes. More to the point, the desire that many soldiers and police have to be viewed as heroes. The most commonly accepted definition says that a hero is someone who does the ordinary under extraordinary circumstances. When a citizen uses a gun to defend themselves and others from violence, it affirms our belief that firearms are a tool that can prevent evil. We celebrate those individuals because we so rarely hear of Righteous defensive gun usage. Nobody expects citizens to stand against evil, they expect them to run and call the police, hence the extraordinary status. But what about the officer that responds to a call and does the exact same thing as the citizen? Isn’t he a hero? By that definition, no. We expect the officer to serve and protect. That is what he is there for. So we respect him for his courage and thank him for his service, but must raise the bar for heroism proportionally. Ultimately that is why many armed citizens become so offended at talk of the police as heroes. It isn’t that they don’t care, but that after 911 every first responder became a hero. The objection comes from the idea that being a first responder conveys the heroic title upon a person absent any comparable action on their part.

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