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

01/04/2017 10:14 am ET
EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ via Getty Images

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.  

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 8, 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 swathes 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.

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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