Feuer Frei! Thoughts on Guns and Policing (Updated)

Beneath the fold you’ll find a picture of me at Essex County College’s Public Safety Academy  in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, using the Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) there. (Is that click bait or what?)

Tasks accomplished tonight at the Academy:

  • I watched my friend and colleague Officer Bob Kish of the Bloomfield Police Department do his firearms certification, which he blew away, with a 93% rating (i.e., 56 out of 60 rounds he was required to fire under tightly timed conditions hit a randomly-appearing target at a distance of 1-25 yards; 80% is a passing score).
  • I shot a bunch of bad guys in the FATS. They died.
  • I learned that I am not a bad shot for a middle aged philosophy professor with a squint. I also learned that I am not a good shot for a police officer who has to operate in non-simulated circumstances.
  • I thought about the philosophical implications of it all (see below).
  • I mailed some letters.


Obviously, the sun was in my eyes. (Photo credit: Bob Kish.) 

Provisional philosophical conclusions I have reached as a result of this experience:

  • It is much harder to shoot things than to criticize people who shoot things.
  • Unless you intend to practice regularly at a firing range, the idea of owning a gun for the sake of self-defense is probably a dangerous delusion, on par with the common delusion that it’s OK to drive after a few drinks (or a joint), or drive while you text.
  • An ideal world would be one in which we put the gun nuts, the drunk drivers, and the text-drivers on a paved island (that’s impossible to escape), deprive them of law or law enforcement, and then have them kill one another off in the ultimate Darwinian cage match.
  • A two-dimensional firearms training simulator gives vivid credence to James Gibson’s thesis that three-dimensional perceptual environments are as information rich as two- dimensional ones are information poor.
  • The next person who makes fun of my flip phone is going to get shot.

Thanks to Lt. Sisco, Sgt. Zepeda, Officer Kish and the Bloomfield Police Department’s Community Policing Unit for making it happen.


Next week, I will be flying weaponized drones at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Anything to avoid grading. Stay tuned.

Postscript, May 1, 2016: I’m not entirely sure what I think about this piece by Falguni Sheth, “Shoot First, Ask Later: Why the Concept of ‘Reasonable Fear’ is Anything But Reasonable,” in Salon. (I know Sheth slightly as a one-time participant in the California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race, which she organizes. By the way, they have a CFP out for their next conference.)

I’ll have to think about it. Much of what she says seems right to me, and much of it occupied my thoughts–without clear resolution–during the eight weeks that I spent at the Bloomfield Citizens Police Academy. But none of it tells us what the right standard should be for the use of lethal force, and none of it, to my mind, takes sufficiently seriously that unlike philosophy, police work involves an ever-present risk of lethal danger–much easier to criticize from the seminar room or online than on the street. (Consider the last shooting event in Bloomfield, in 2010. How many philosophers have the temperament or demeanor to acquit themselves under those conditions?)

I’m inclined to think that one can’t, with full credibility, criticize police officers’ rules of engagement until one undergoes some version of the firearms training that they undergo. I don’t mean that firearms training is a necessary condition of speaking out at all; I mean that one’s criticisms will tend to lack credibility unless one demonstrates the ability to face real, weaponized danger and handle it with demonstrable competence. Very few philosophers have that ability, but too many philosophers think that they can criticize those who have it while they lack it. There are, I think, many legitimate criticisms to be made of contemporary police work along precisely the lines that Sheth identifies. But our arguments will lack traction until we go down into the trenches with the cops themselves, and/or spend some time in firearms simulators, or in firing ranges, learning to do what cops do in the conditions under which they do them. Otherwise, our arguments are foredoomed to irrelevance, even if they turn out to be right. But more on this after I think things through.

By the way, I’m “graduating” Citizens Police Academy this week. It’s been a grueling eight weeks of petting police dogs, complaining about traffic conditions, hanging out with the SWAT team and the bomb squad, quizzing local health officials about hoarders and the water supply, deciphering gang graffiti, and shooting two-dimensional outlaws. If there’s one to join in your town, I highly recommend doing so. It absolutely beats grading (and prepping).

Postscript, May 4, 2016: From the “go figure” department: “As States Expand Gun Rights, the Police Object.”

There has long been a tension between the interests of law enforcement and the efforts to roll back gun regulations, but the conflicts are becoming more frequent as gun laws are expanded, particularly in states with permissive policies. Police officers in Maine and Texas have described coming across people displaying their weapons near schools and libraries, daring anyone to call the police and challenge their newly won rights.

Childish belligerence armed: the bulwark of all of our liberties. As for the chances that any of these yahoos know when to draw their weapons (and when not to), know when to shoot (and when not to), or can shoot straight, that’s anyone’s guess. Of course, when they do fire their weapons, no one will call them to account for the rounds they fire, as is routinely done with police officers who fire their service weapons. If for whatever reason, their actions end up being legal, that will be that–there won’t be a need for an accounting. When their actions are illegal, they’ll have every incentive to plead the Fifth, so that the accounting will be an uphill battle. How we’re collectively safer as a result is pretty unclear to me, and with all due respect to his many fans, John Lott’s research doesn’t assuage my fears.

12 thoughts on “Feuer Frei! Thoughts on Guns and Policing (Updated)

  1. I think you either overestimate the difficulty of driving after a few drinks or are much better with a gun than you’re letting on.

    But mainly I wanted to say that you are rocking that argyle there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • you either overestimate the difficulty of driving after a few drinks

      Have heard that one before, usually from the passenger seat of a car I can’t escape. But people drive so badly even when they’re sober that I think we’re justified in adopting a one drop rule with respect to drinking and driving. Or drinking and taking Ambien, for that matter. God knows I’ve done my share of Ambien-fueled somnambulating and driving. But those days are behind me.

      But mainly I wanted to say that you are rocking that argyle there.

      Thanks. Imagine what I’d wear after a few drinks.


      • By the way, I can’t resist, but here is today’s quota of SMH gun news, just from The New York Times, and just focused on domestic stories.

        Items (1) and (2): “Texas: Armed Man Who Intervened in Woman’s Shooting Is Killed,” and “Tennessee: College Staff and Faculty Will Be Allowed to Carry Guns.”

        Item (3): “College Student Killed in Attempted Robbery at a Fraternity House in Newark.”

        Item (4): “Silence Order On Abortions Violates Law, Doctor Says: Hospital Cites Security After Colorado Shooting.”

        There doesn’t seem to be any clear means of escape from this national psychosis, at least as a matter of policy. But as I sat through the firearms training at the Police Academy, I found myself in the grips of several competing but hard-to-reconcile thoughts.

        One was:

        Wow, these guys are basically trained from the get-go in overkill, and are taught to habituate overkill throughout their careers. When they feel “reasonable suspicion,” they’re taught to draw down. If the suspicion is physically proximate, they’re taught to shoot from the holster. When they draw, the aim is always to kill. (As per my instructor, Lt. Sisco: “Every shot is a kill shot. There are no warning shots, and no shots intended merely to wound. To repeat: every shot is a kill shot. If you’re going to draw your weapon at all, you shoot to kill. If you don’t intend to kill, you do not draw your weapon. If I see Khawaja over there coming at me, and I draw my weapon, it’s to kill him. Got that?”)

        And one shot never suffices: their training demands that when an officer draws his weapon, he or she fires multiple rounds within a matter of seconds. Even if an officer had second thoughts about any of that in the middle of a shooting event, the second thoughts would be epiphenomenal: she’s been trained for years to fire multiple rounds on any occasion on which she draws her weapon, so that’s what she does, saving the second thoughts for the privacy of her mind. If multiple officers surround a suspect (ideally in a semi-circle rather than a polygon), all of them fire multiple rounds with lethal intent. That’s why suspects end up riddled with bullets. Add to that the vagueness of “reasonable suspicion,” the presumption that the cop is always right, a system stacked in their favor, and the insanities of the drug war and the de facto profiling that comes with it, and you’ve got the makings of a racial bloodbath in every town in the country.

        The other was:

        We live in a country in which virtually any asshole can acquire a weapon, carry it, brandish it, and go around killing people before he’s stopped. As a patrol cop, you spend every single day of your life working a job whose purpose is to root out and confront such people. Any day can be the day when you face one down, and either you kill him or he kills you. Having body armor is of almost no use under these circumstances. It doesn’t cover the whole of your body, and even if the round hits you where you’re protected, you’ll go down in pain and be momentarily stunned, so that a determined shooter could finish you off right there before you had a chance to come to.

        Further, if and when the moment of truth arrives, you can’t adduce excuses like “being tired,” “not having had enough sleep,” “suffering from the after-effects of last night’s Nyquil,” or “having a bad day.” Either you prevail in a life or death situation, or you don’t. And it’s utterly irrelevant that police work is, all things considered, safer than other lines of work–the triumphant rhetorical flourish of anti-cop critics, by way of that omniscient source, the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s probably safer in part because of the rules of engagement (which the BLS doesn’t correct for). But aggregate or comparative safety is irrelevant anyway. Even if a cop bears firmly in mind that police work is generally safer than logging or commercial fishing–or bears in mind that the war on drugs is a bad idea, or that racial profiling is really, really bad–the fact remains that she’s patrolling streets populated by weaponized criminals who will kill her at a moment’s notice without provocation. Even if she’s not literally going into “battle,” vigilance in police work is a matter of life or death. And vigilance means the readiness to kill someone at a moment’s notice–or be killed. There are very few jobs like that, and the failure to take that fact fully on board vitiates most armchair criticisms of police work.

        I don’t think either side in our post-Ferguson debate about police work has fully come to grips with both sides of this story.

        Actually, a third thought was:

        We need some effective gun control in this goddamn country.

        But a fourth thought was:

        That’s a nice thought, but the truth is, there really aren’t any silver bullet policy options available as regards gun control.

        A fifth thought was:

        Well, then we need to abolish the goddamn war on drugs.

        But a sixth thought was:

        Yeah, we do. But let’s not kid ourselves that the results will be all that dramatic as regards gun violence, or that decriminalization won’t lead to catastrophes of its own. After all, if the widespread availability of psychotropic medications has led to over-prescription and over-reliance on them, why think that the legalization of hard drugs like heroin and crack cocaine will go without a hitch?

        I decided to stop thinking at that point.


      • All I know is that I have driven after a few drinks and nobody is dead because of it; I don’t think we’d get the same outcome if I just picked up a gun and tried to shoot it.

        For the record, I have fired guns before, but it’s been a very long time, and I’ve never fired very powerful guns. Leaving out the BB guns I shot when I was a kid, I shot my mom’s .22 a few times at target practice about 17 years ago. Let’s just say that if we ever need to defend ourselves, I’m giving her the gun.


        • Well, she may know how to shoot a gun, but who knows more about the Peloponnesian War? Put it this way, if it came to a showdown over the middle-passive optative of the verb grapho, I’d definitely want you on my side.


        • It’s standard operating procedure in PDs across the land, and has been for decades. This is worth reading.

          An underdiscussed topic: most police officers work with a moral category that guides their actions in everything they do, despite having no legal status whatsoever. The category is what I call the de facto illegal. A de facto illegal act is an act that is strictly speaking legal, but considered so eccentric (bizarre, weird, outre, stupid) that it is treated, in police work, as though it were illegal.

          Example: It is strictly speaking legal for five young men to walk through the streets at 3 am with crowbars in their hands, but if they do, their doing so will trigger the suspicion that they must be engaged in criminal activity. Naturally, they’ll be treated as though they were criminals. Once you have that status–would-be criminality–anything you do can trigger the kind of fear in the police officer that will justify a kill shot (or a series of them). If I am one of the youths in my crowbar example, and I’m stopped for questioning by the police, any quick or unexpected move I make, and/or any hostility I show, is likely to lead to my death. Even in the case where my act is legal, I am not committing a crime, the unexpected move is innocuous, and the hostility is protected by the First Amendment, I can justifiably be shot to pieces. No cop would be reprimanded for doing so. Shooting me is standard policy and the basic lesson taught in Police Academy on day 1 of the firearms training. To the extent that that’s changing, the pace of change is slow. In San Francisco, the new policy is to shoot two rounds at a time and re-assess the situation rather than, say, to empty your magazine until you’re absolutely sure the suspect is dead. But if you’re directly hit by two rounds with a Glock, you’re as good as gone.

          I think the average American has trouble processing that: you can justifiably be killed for performing an act every aspect of which is legal. The underlying assumption is not that any aspect of the act is illegal, but that performing it under these circumstances is culpably stupid. Culpable stupidity has no legal standing, but it is the actual moral predicate at work in the minds of many police officers. If you act in a culpably stupid fashion in an encounter with them–I suspect that they think–you deserve to die.

          For a variety of reasons, these “culpably stupid”-looking encounters tend to be racialized. That’s the subtext of the situation we’re in. The whole situation is greatly exacerbated by the war on drugs, as well as by the easy availability of firearms, but ultimately it’s a failure of cross-cultural communication. Black men who feel generally disrespected encounter cops (often but not invariably white) who enjoy enormous socially-conferred power and prestige. Each party is conscious at some level of the cultural-social differences between them, and the drama begins from there. It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy–except that it’s distinctively American.

          Though I guess there could be an Israeli version, among others.


          • That Atlantic piece is good, but so is your brief comment here. What I think is particularly helpful about it is that it shows how race factors into this stuff even when the cops involved are not overtly “racist” in the most common sense of the word. Of course the sort of bias that leads people to see a bunch of black guys wandering in the street as more dangerous than a bunch of white guys is a racist bias, and I think it’s one that individuals are responsible for, but it’s also one that is perpetuated by factors a lot more complex than sheer bigotry or disregard for black (or other) lives. (My neighbor, who is a young black man and has been on the receiving end of this sort of bias, told me once that he also has it himself; he’s more likely to be suspicious of young black men, or at least young black men dressed in certain not unusual ways, than he is of white men, Asian men, or just about any other kind of men. Recognizing that this is silly does not automatically eliminate it). So much of the useless political bickering about police violence gets stuck on the question of whether the individual cops involved are racist bigots or whether they’re rare, when in fact the outcomes are fairly predictable given the various factors you’ve identified.

            I was not aware that police are trained to fire only to kill. I know that shooting only to wound or incapacitate is easier said than done, but it’s pretty shocking that they don’t even try.


            • Yes. I learned a lot from attending the Citizen Police Academy, but if there’s one meta-lesson, it’s this: once you spend time with cops, you come to see things from their perspective. Once you see things from their perspective, you simultaneously see it more sympathetically, and see more clearly what they’re missing.

              The “perpetuated by factors more complex than sheer bigotry” issue is one reason I’m so interested in the relation–or alleged relation–between perceptual-level properties and moral predicates. An enormous amount of epistemic work is done in police work by the concepts of the suspicious, the anomalous, the culpably stupid, the weird, etc. Those concepts seem perceptual, but they’re very much theory-laden. People often think they can literally see a suspicious demeanor in the way that they can see the redness of a red shirt. The inferences concerning suspiciousness become automatized, and as you say, everyone is taught to internalize them early on, regardless of race. But the fact remains–the “theory” in question is partly a cultural or racial one. Respectability is thought to “look” a certain way, and suspiciousness is thought to look another. Since the judgments seem self-evident, and the basis for them is hard to articulate, the basis goes unarticulated. But it’s partly racial.

              The entire mantra of “if you see something, say something” rests on this failure to articulate. The see something/say something mantra gives the impression that what triggers the see something could be anything. But if that were so, people would be calling 911 every minute. In fact, there’s an implicit proviso in the see something/say something mantra. The proviso is: “but use your judgment.” So the mantra really means: if you see something weird or out of the ordinary, say something, and don’t worry too much about articulating what is weird or out of the ordinary about it; just call. Of course, in many neighborhoods the presence of five black men would by itself be weird or out of the ordinary–in which case, it becomes seeing something. When someone then says something, there’s the potential for disaster. I can’t count how many such situations I’ve been in (well, I guess I could, but it would irritate me). There’s a logic to them, and you can often predict when “someone’s gonna call the cops on us,” because “we’re doing something kinda stupid.”

              In general, if there’s a gap between a society’s legal concepts and its conception of the de facto illegal, its special neuroses will fill the gap. If, for instance, we don’t really know what “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” mean, and we invent a conception of the de facto illegal to give them meaning, and our national neuroses are racial, then “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” will become racialized. If you add a war on drugs to that, where there is an urgent need for constant searches and seizures, racialized criminal procedure will be hard to avoid.

              On shooting to kill: I actually agree with the police doctrine on this. Once you go through firearms training, you quickly realize that shooting to wound is an impossible demand. In any case where you draw your weapon, there is a very high likelihood that you will miss your target. To maximize the probability of hitting it, you have to hit its center of mass. If the target is a human being, the center of mass is the torso. But virtually any shot to the torso with a high caliber weapon is a kill shot.

              That said, there’s an unfortunate ambiguity in the claim “every shot is a kill shot.” It’s ambiguous as between “when you draw your weapon, you should intend to pull the trigger and intend to kill” and “when you draw your weapon, you should intend to pull your trigger, and foresee that death is the likely result of doing so–not that death should be your aim.” The distinction gets lost in police training as a Scholastic subtlety irrelevant to the rough and tumble of the ‘hood. It shouldn’t be treated that way, but it is.

              It wouldn’t be lost on police cadets who had had a good ethics course in their undergraduate years (and had retained what they learned)–e.g., students who had studied the doctrine of double effect, and had realized that whatever they ultimately think about the doctrine, the distinction between intended and foreseen is crucial. But if ever you’d like to pursue a lost cause, pursue that one. When all is said and done, you’re liable to want to shoot yourself. But I guess part of my larger point here is that one can’t be taken seriously on this subject unless one develops first-hand competence with firearms, and puts some skin in the game. Another lost cause.

              OK, I’m off to my graduation ceremony at the mayor’s office. I’ll post a photo of my certificate here, along with my gun and badge.

              Liked by 1 person

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