Just Because Cops Like Guns Doesn’t Mean They Oppose Gun Control.

During the campaign one of Trump’s poster-boys for getting out the gun vote was Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who has been a featured speaker at the national meeting of the NRA. America’s oldest civil rights organization has long promoted the alleged support of law enforcement when it comes to protecting gun ‘rights’ and solicits and receives pro-gun homages from many of the nation’s sheriffs.

cops Why sheriffs?  Because they are responsible for law enforcement in just about every part of the country outside the larger urban centers, and in case you didn’t notice it back on November 8th, rural areas and small towns usually vote red. And since sheriffs, as opposed to police chiefs, are elected not appointed, the political views of most American sheriffs tend to reflect the political views of the people they are sworn to protect. It’s hardly a surprise, for example, that more than 50 sheriffs sued Colorado’s Governor, claiming that the state’s new gun laws were unconstitutional. The suits went nowhere, but it gave the sheriffs something to do besides running down to Dunkin’ Donuts to bring coffee back for the boys.

There are somewhere upwards of 765,000 full-time law enforcement officers working in the United States, along with some 400,000 part-timers.  Roughly half are attached to departments that number 10 sworn officers or less. Not only do law enforcement personnel in these smaller agencies patrol wide swatches of underpopulated territory, they usually come from the same community themselves. Which means that their views on all subjects is often no different than the views of the people whose neighborhoods they patrol.  And let’s not forget that the further you move away from cities, the higher is the per capita ownership of guns.

To quote an officer serving in a small, rural department: “I grew up in a rural county, so everyone hunted. I’ve been around guns since I was a kid.” Another officer from the same department said: “My views are shaped [by rural life] because that’s how I was raised—around guns.”  These and other comments by members of a rural sheriff’s department appear in a remarkable article written by Rachael Woldoff, a sociologist at West Virginia University who, with the help of researchers from Washington & Jefferson and the FBI, spent several years conducting detailed interviews with 20 members of a rural sheriff’s department to better understand what she refers to as ‘complex views’ on gun control held by these cops. [Download the article here.]

And what she learned and has explained in impressive detail is that, when it comes to views about guns, police both reflect the views of the communities in which they were raised and served, as well as separating themselves from some of those views because of the nature of their work and experiences.  She refers to this process as the ‘multiple identities’ that police in rural areas must learn to incorporate into their work even if they tend to come on the job from a pro-gun background.

What does Woldoff mean by a ‘nuanced’ view on guns?  She learned that rural police overwhelmingly rejected the concept of ‘gun control’ while embracing the notion of ‘individual rights. Nevertheless, these same officers supported expanded background checks and mandatory, pre-licensing training prior to concealed-carry issuance.  Here again, the multiple identities that these cops must fold into a ‘police identity’ is reflected by the fact that they view rural gun owners as responsible gun owners, “but also as unsafe and insufficiently trained to own and use firearms.” Wow.

This article is a very serious academic effort and the reader must work through some lengthy discussions about identity theory and other sociological methodology, but it’s worth it.  The fact that these cops unstintingly line up on the side of rural gun culture doesn’t necessarily make them averse to supporting reasonable measures to curb gun violence.  And advocates for gun violence prevention shouldn’t take anyone for granted in terms of pushing their message as far and wide as they can.

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5 thoughts on “Just Because Cops Like Guns Doesn’t Mean They Oppose Gun Control.

  1. Excellent article that helps explain the ambivalence of police officers toward sensible gun laws. One would think that police officers have a strong personal interest in ensuring that adversaries are not armed and, certainly, that they do not possess more lethal weapons than officers. In Canada, the national police chiefs’ association long ago joined the gun violence prevention community in championing sensible gun regulation.

  2. I think individual cops might see supporting GVP as some sort of ‘Coming Out’ with all the anxiety that presents.

  3. Everyone I know is for strict, careful gun control. Just not in the form that government can do from a distance. My favorite range has ultra-strict rules regarding safety. But there is nothing private about going there. It is not my house. Let me help translate what “nuanced” means in this case. It means they wish people in general would be more careful and more well trained with respect to guns but they do not want to be put in a position of having to arrest their otherwise law abiding neighbors when they see a gun law violation. For example, nobody thinks more than 5-10% of the ARs in Conn. and NY state were turned in or registered when the law recently declared that they must be. So, now there are 100s of thousands of decent people newly violating the law. How much do you think the average LE wants to choose between overlooking a violation of a law (a victimless law at that) and arresting a member of an otherwise extremely law-abiding, LE friendly community? Not one bit. Also, anyone who studies history can tell you that the damaging thing ever to happen to law enforcement in America was prohibition. Maybe smart cops do not want another dose of the same poison. Maybe that is why well done CC laws are popular with LE in so many places. They increase respect for the Law.

  4. Everybody made good points here. I downloaded the article and will read it.

    In a lot of these small towns, I suspect the biggest source of risk of owning firearms is suicide, as suicide tends to be concentrated in some of these isolated places. Crime is generally low. Even with that, as a friend of mine who moved from Westcliffe, CO to Albuquerque noted, one was miles from help out there in the sticks of Custer County, hence he had self defense firearms for protection against both human and non-human threats; he once had to frighten off a bear on his deck with a 357 magnum round whizzing past the bear’s ear. Isolation results in the perception that one needs to be self reliant, including in the case of self defense. I suspect, as Mike noted, that the police out there share the same values and as Rum notes, the cops do not want to become adversarial to their neighbors by running around looking for high capacity magazines, etc. Such would not only be a solution in search of a problem but would divide folks. Note that not only in CO did the sheriffs oppose some controls but in both Maine and Nevada most of the sheriffs opposed the recent Everytown ballot initiatives.

    It was interesting that my friend, on moving to Albuquerque, turned his Mini-30 over to the APD for destruction, not feeling he should own one, although the PD decided to keep it in their crime lab as they did not have an example. I razzed my friend that given Albuquerque’s high violent crime rate, he would have more of a likelihood of needing it in Albuquerque than in Westcliffe. He nonetheless kept a 357 Magnum revolver and lever action rifle, which he considered normal civilian arms.

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