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Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 12:14 am

Police don’t have to shoot so much

 For the last year I have been disheartened by the steady stream of police shootings that have been witnessed where there seems to be minimal provocation.

For example, on Sept. 4 a man in South Carolina was standing outside his car when asked by a state police officer to produce his license. When he reached into his car to get it, the officer pulled his weapon and ordered him to get out of the car. As the man complied he was shot. The director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety announced the officer would be fired because he “reacted to a perceived threat where there was none.”

As I ponder cases like this, I am stuck by one thought that seems to get little attention: We are a society where officers must assume every person is armed to the teeth. In such an environment, officers have little margin to hesitate before firing.

I contrast the U.S. situation with the situation in Australia, a country I have frequently visited since my brother emigrated in the 1980s.

In 2013 Australia had only two legal-intervention homicides for a rate of one death/10,000,000 population. In the same year, there were 681 legal-intervention homicides in the U.S. for a rate of 22/10,000,000 (gunpolicy.org).

While Australian law enforcement officers need to be cautious, they also know that because of significant gun reform in 1996, the chances that each citizen they interact with is packing serious firepower is much reduced.

The impetus for the 1996 gun reform law occurred in April of that year when a young man suffering from mental illness suddenly began shooting people with a semiautomatic rifle. When it was all over 35 people had died and 18 had been wounded. In the previous 18 years, Australia had witnessed 13 other mass shootings.

It took Australian legislators only 12 days to pass the National Firearms Agreement and Buyback Program (NFA). The legislation banned public possession of a number of rapid-fire and semiautomatic weapons. The Australian government bought back over 700,000 firearms at a cost of $230 million. In Australia mass shootings (five or more people killed) have become a thing of the past.

Now some will argue that doing this will just put the public at the mercy of criminals who violate the law and get illegal firearms. Yet the statistics do not bear this out. In 2012 Australia had 0.19 firearm homicides per 100,000 population and only 16 percent of murders were by firearm in 2012 (overall homicide rate 1.29/100,000). In contrast, the U.S. firearm homicide rate was 3.70 per 100,000 in 2012 and 60 percent of murders were by firearm (overall homicide rate 5.31/100,000).

In Australia, the total gun death rate (homicides, suicides and accidental shootings) dropped from 2.84/100,000 in 1996 to 1.02/100,000 in 2014. In contrast the 2014 U.S. total gun death rate was 10.54/100,000 and has been stable for about two decades. You may note that one is more likely to die by a gunshot accidentally or through suicide than a homicide.

Firearm reform did not mean that Australians don’t own guns. In 1996 the Australian gun ownership rate was 17.59/100 people versus 13.70/100 in 2016. The U.S. rate is about 100 guns per 100 people.

So what are the common sense restrictions in Australia before one is granted a gun ownership license? First there is a mandatory background check with disqualification for criminal activity, domestic violence, substance abuse/addiction or a disqualifying mental health condition. Licensees must pass rigorous training and demonstrate the capacity to store firearms safely. Open and concealed carry is prohibited in public places.

While there are many contributing factors to legal-intervention shootings, enacting common sense gun control laws will help to lessen the sense of danger that is very real for law enforcement officers.

And that will make all of us a little safer the next time we have to interact with one.

Dr. Stephen Soltys is a retired professor emeritus who still teaches at SIU School of Medicine on a volunteer basis.

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