August 14 was a terrifying day for Philadelphia. For seven hours, Philadelphia police officers engaged in a hostage standoff with a suspect armed with an illegally possessed AR-15 and handgun. The incident left six police officers injured. Since then, calls for gun control have surged both from within the law enforcement community and on behalf of it. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents chiefs like LAPD’s Michel Moore, called for a renewed assault weapons ban; Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney demanded gun control to “Help our police officers. Help our clergy. Help our kids.”
To advocates of stricter gun regulations, these calls seem common sense. After all, police are on the frontlines of gun law enforcement; they are the ones who are professionally obligated to confront the first-hand damage that many others invested in gun policy merely debate about. But police don’t unilaterally support increased restrictions on guns. An expansive survey on police attitudes, published by Pew in early 2017, shows that police supported gun rights over gun control in numbers that far outpace US public opinion. Meanwhile, though police widely supported gun tracking mechanisms—including expanded background checks—they also opposed outright bans, even on assault weapons. In stark contrast to the two-thirds support for an assault weapons ban among the general public, less than a third of police supported the outlawing of these weapons.
One way to unravel the complicated terrain of police attitudes on gun policy is to start with the elephant in the room of any conversation about US gun politics: the National Rifle Association. Most people associate the NRA with ensuring that private civilians have access to firearms in order to exercise their Second Amendment rights. But the NRA has also been critical in brokering firearms access to police, too. As early as 1916, the NRA’s Frank J. Kahr explained the necessity of police guns in the organization’s then-flagship magazine, Man and Arms:
When the time comes and every policeman is capable of drawing his revolver or pistol with the least possible delay and shooting it accurately, the lawbreakers, who now hold little fear of the policeman’s aim, will think twice before drawing their fire. Then, and not until then, will the criminal element have respect for the policeman’s revolver.
Throughout the 1920s, the organization held in-person and postal competitions aimed at the public law enforcement community. From the perspective of the police, the NRA’s training provided a number of benefits: NRA-organized matches and competitions provided an opportunity for police to develop and broadcast their newfound handgun proficiency and define their professional identities around a firearms-centric, crime-fighter mentality. The extent to which American police work became professionalized around the gun owes a great deal to the NRA’s work during this early period.
As the 20th century marched on, the NRA would continue to suture ties with the public law enforcement community. In the 1960s, the NRA continued to promote itself as a “law and order” organization to police and the public, anticipating the War on Crime that would eventually lead some police to question their allegiance to a gun rights agenda. This was not just rhetoric: NRA membership, for example, helped police departments access military surplus, something that the Detroit Police Department took advantage of in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Riot.
As gun violence emerged as an ever-pressing threat tied to racist narratives of urban unrest and violent “superpredators” in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the NRA found itself on unsure footing with respect to law enforcement. Increasingly, gun control was the one “liberal” issue on which police were willing to break ranks with their conservative “tough on crime” counterparts. By the late 1980s, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, along with other police spokespersons and organizations, spoke out in strident favor of an assault weapons ban, explicitly framing assault weapons regulation as one of police safety:
My police department has already lost two officers who were killed by assault weapons…I do not want any more officers to be spray-gunned to death by street punks armed with high-tech killing machines.
He noted elsewhere, “These weapons have got to go. Policemen all over America are united on this.” Police support for the assault weapons ban would be a crucial element in passing it as part of Clinton’s crime bill in 1994, which also ear-marked additional funds for public law enforcement in addition to strengthening criminal sanctions.
The lessons drawn from the aftermath of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban for the US gun debate often center on the backlash it unleashed in US Congress and among gun rights proponents. NRA membership spiked, and the organization vowed to aggressively fight anyone at the ballot box interested in restricting gun rights at local, state and federal levels. But this period was also one in which the NRA solidified allies among police, as the organization rekindled ties with the Fraternal Order of Police, successfully fought for federal legislation expanding the ability of police to carry guns off-duty across the US, and launched programs—such as the Life of Duty—specifically aimed at law enforcement. Dana Loesch’s infamous “clenched fist of truth” clip, which aired on now-defunct NRATV, easily folds support for law enforcement into the organization’s broader fear-mongering rhetoric against the political Left:
They use their media to assassinate real news, and they use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movies and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again…all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia, to smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding. Until the only option left is for police to do their jobs and stop the madness.
The NRA’s historical relationship with public law enforcement is not the only reason why police support gun rights in the majority—a full appreciation of police subculture, the shifting terrain of gun violence (especially with respect to active shootings), and the racial politics of criminal and state-legitimated violence are all necessary (and interrelated) to fully grasp police’s stance on gun politics. But the NRA’s ties with law enforcement, which extend over a century, represent a crucial axis along which to make sense of both how police have come to see gun rights as aligned with their professional identities and how the NRA managed to cultivate key supporters in places where gun control advocates have too often assumed they have natural allies.