A few summers ago, I moved to Reykjavík to research the Scandinavian human rights framework. The land was a playground, and every night my friends and I played. Natural trampolines of thick moss, crystal clear geothermal pools tucked in the mountains and a clan of cats roaming the streets gave us unfettered fun. Knowing I was there for research, many of my friends would offer ideas about the history of Iceland, how they wish it’d been written, and how it had been instead. Other times I found myself in the company of those close to the center of political change, like the night I shared a cab home from a party with the former prime minister’s son. But I learned more about issues of disarmament and human rights by accident, in the interludes when I wasn’t looking for answers.
One night, while a friend and I drove through Iceland’s ceaseless daylight, she turned to me and asked if I had ever seen a gun. I scoffed, but she was sincere. She had never seen one in her life, though she glimpsed partial images of them on some American television shows. I had seen guns more times than I could count: holstered, cocked, displayed, pointed, referenced, possessed, carried. Didn’t that make me anxious? She wanted to know. Though my instinct was to defend my normal, I wondered, “Does the overwhelming presence of weaponry cause anxiety?” Surely, she’d seen guns, I insisted, like when she got pulled over for speeding, as she always did. “Why should that entail guns?” She asked. Now it was her turn to scoff.
Guns are written into the American fabric. America’s propensity for violence is undisputed, and its perpetuation by guns is unignorable. And while it is estimated that nearly half of American households own a gun or firearm, many more Americans have likely seen guns firsthand. We encounter guns all the time, like at the entrances to concert venues or music festivals, patrolling sporting events or any other number of the places we go for leisure. Despite the carnage guns are responsible for, they are a staple of the places we go to enjoy our lives. Why?
Guns have become a feature of American life, in large part, because of their proliferation among the police. To the moderate, gun presence is non-alarming; to the ambivalent, normal; and to the realist, necessary. But we have to question the ubiquity of armed state actors and interrogate the perceived irreversibility of our systems of state security.
In the social contract theories which undergird our relationship to our government, we are promised security, and in exchange for some personal liberties, we nominate the state as our protectorate. But what happens when our protectorate fails to keep us safe? It’s more likely than you think. Over the past two years alone, nearly 2,000 people were reported killed extrajudicially by police in the U.S. When combined with the first months of 2019, the three-year total reaches 2,779.
Research shows this is not a universal phenomenon. In many places around the world, including the United Kingdom, Norway and New Zealand, police are unarmed, or must go through extensive reporting processes to receive permission to unlock the arms they travel with. More alarming than the American statistics is the nonchalance with which we address the matter; officers who commit on-duty manslaughter rarely face charges, and instead, they are granted paid time off. We reward those employed to protect us even when they fail to do so and neglect to hold them accountable for the killings they commit against everyday citizens. We as a nation have come to believe in, and ironically, protect, a “thin blue line,” but in doing so, we forget that the government can train more cops anytime it chooses. It’s us citizens that have only one chance.
For a long time, I clung to the words of Bertha Von Suttner in her nearly 500-page manifesto, “Lay Down Your Arms,” which, when read by her friend Alfred, led to the creation of the Nobel Peace Prize, and, when read by me, rekindled a personal commitment in my scholarship to understand, track and eradicate weapon proliferation and violent conflict. While I still feel pulled to her ideals of total civilian disarmament, I know now there is nuance in the way we negotiate our safety.
As the nation pushes for gun control more broadly and deeply, it’s necessary to consider which communities would be most impacted by the loss of providing for their own personal protection. If the constitutional idea underpinning citizen weaponry is to maintain a way to overpower the government when necessary, we should think again about whether handfuls of handguns can really counteract the world’s most powerful military and most entrenched military-industrial complex. If gun control calls for the radical abandonment of personal weapons, we’ll have to have our security guaranteed. State actors, like the police, are supposed to make manifest that security, but the modern system of American policing cannot make that promise.
A few months ago in London, another hub of unarmed police, a friend and I were headed out to enjoy one of the rare sunny days of spring with a picnic in one of the many sprawling gardens on the city’s north side. After taking double-decker buses most of the way, we jumped out to walk the remaining blocks, hoping to maximize the time we’d spend in the light. The route we took was haphazard, and we walked behind dumpsters, over driveways and through seemingly privately-owned lawns. I resisted. I wanted to return to a path, a bus, a designated area where we could not be penalized. “What are you so afraid of?” My friend demanded of me. In hindsight I don’t know if we were on private or prohibited property, another largely American concept, or that it would even be policed if we were. But my fear of punitive action that overuses force is not unfounded.
My parents always worry before I go abroad about the multitude of dangers that might befall me, but I’ve always been more afraid of late nights driving alone on overpoliced Michigan highways — when the darkness of night makes abuses of authority more untraceable, unpunishable — than I ever have of shenanigans under other sovereigns. Because, while seeing guns is a facet of American public life, still more disconcerting are the times we don’t see them.
In Michigan, cops have concealed carry licenses, which means off-duty officers carrying their government-issued firearms and handguns can do so in secret, ensuring fellow citizens cannot see they are armed. What could be the purpose of hiding a gun on someone’s person in the public spaces we share? Are police officers never off-duty, just undercover? Are they to be vigilant at all times, prepared to launch into armed attacks in situations where they are not beckoned? We know the consequences of this are high. Take the recent case against former officer Amber Guyger, who was “off-duty” but armed when she mistakenly entered a Dallas apartment which was not her own, but her neighbor’s, who she mistook for an intruder and shot and killed them. How are citizens to survive when they cannot know the fight they are up against?
My childhood home was part of that American half which has a gun. It never provided any semblance of security to me. As a young girl, I knew only that I could not go near it nor touch it, and as a young adult I wanted nothing to do with it. This guttural reaction of distrust of weaponry transfers to the institution of armed policing; it is not a criticism of those individuals who feel they are serving the country and its people. In fact, my original interest in, and insider knowledge about, security forces comes from a deeply personal connection. My father is a police officer, and he offered candidness about a system that desperately needs reform. From his vantage point, police militarization seemed only to create domestic warzones, and it was this observation and his doubts about the institution’s ability to provide justice that inspired me to question it further. The gun in my household was a police gun. It makes no difference.
I know the answer to the question asked of me in Iceland now … and it is, “Yes, I am anxious.” Armed, unchecked figures of authority have given me every reason to be. So, when we decide to say lay down your arms, I want this to mean lay down our arms inclusively.