In the wake of two recent mass shootings, at a private school in Nashville, Tennessee and inside a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, familiar arguments have been playing out in cable news studios and throughout the Twittersphere. “The solution is obvious!” We’re told authoritatively by gun control advocates. “We want more gun control, and we want it now!”
But another debate puts the lie to that demand—or rather, reveals the stark tradeoff that gun control advocates are forcing on the victims of gun violence, thanks to another one of their demands, namely, for police reform and decarceration. For some time now, the gun control debate has been playing out alongside another debate about the proper role of policing and incarceration as a response to rising crime, and many of the prominent voices calling for more stringent gun regulation in the former debate are also well-known voices pushing to curtail the power of law enforcement institutions in the latter.
But you simply can’t demand both that people relinquish their guns and that the police be denuded of the power to protect them from criminals. It’s impossible to square calls for more gun control with the positions many of the advocates making those calls hold on matters of policing and criminal justice. Existing gun regulations are essentially meaningless empty threats without the will to enforce them, and additional restrictions would be rendered even more superfluous by efforts to actively undermine the very institutions tasked with such enforcement.
Yet the loudest voices on the Left are demanding both more gun control and less law enforcement. So many of the same people who say things like “we can’t arrest or incarcerate ourselves out of our violent crime problem” also seem to believe that we can somehow regulate our way out of shootings.
It’s a glaring incongruity that very few seem interested in exploring.
One of their favorite rhetorical tactics is to allege hypocrisy among those who don’t support what they call “common sense” regulations on firearms. “One cannot be pro-life or support so-called parents rights and yet do nothing about this,” tweeted The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones of 1619 Project. But Hannah-Jones’s argument can just as easily be applied to those pushing for more gun regulation in response to public mass shootings—well, those mass shootings that don’t take place in high-crime urban enclaves.
One might wonder just how folks like Hannah-Jones can express support for depolicing or dismantling the so-called “carceral state”—which would leave likely shooters on the street and exacerbate violence in vulnerable neighborhoods—and in the next breath accuse others of not caring as much as they do about gun violence.
The evidence that their blindness costs lives is everywhere. Take the 2021 shooting of Adam Toledo, a visibly armed 13-year-old who fled the scene of a shooting while still armed, and was shot by Chicago police officer Eric Stillman after turning toward Stillman while tossing his gun behind a fence, concealing his hand from the officer’s view in the process.
While the loss of a young life is obviously tragic, the actions of Officer Stillman—running toward gun fire and pursuing an armed suspected shooter through a dark alley—illustrated an heroic effort that placed the safety of the community he was serving above his own. After all, chasing an armed suspect can prove deadly for a Chicago cop—as it did for Chicago police officer Andres Vasquez-Lasso, who was fatally shot earlier this year while pursuing an armed man after responding to a 911 call reporting an armed assault. The suspect in that case? An 18-year-old who was on the street despite having been arrested on a gun charge last summer.
Yet Stillman’s heroics were met not with thanks but accusations of cold-blooded murder and outrage, expressed by so many voices—including Nikole Hannah-Jones—who have also condemned conservative opposition to their favored gun regulations. Stillman’s heroism was also met with a two-year investigation that just culminated in the filing of administrative charges with the Police Board and a recommendation that Stillman “be separated from the Chicago Police Department.”
No one seems to be asking the obvious questions here: How do they expect additional gun restrictions to suppress shootings without any enforcement?
The incoherence is infuriating. We know that in cities like Chicago, gun violence is disproportionately driven by repeat offenders with extensive criminal histories, or young, gang-involved youths without any impulse control. Indeed, a 2017 study from the University of Chicago Crime Lab reported that in 2015 and 2016, those charged with shootings or homicides had on average 12 prior arrests. The study also found that a quarter of homicide suspects in that city were between the ages of 10 and 19.
Yet none of the shootings or murders committed by repeat offenders have inspired any policy changes aimed at doing more to incapacitate armed criminals. The legally justified shooting of Adam Toledo, however, did lead to a new policy—one restricting foot pursuits by police.
The message sent to police by the treatment of officer Stillman is clear. But so is the choice that much of the American Left must make: You can either have effective gun control, or you can defang police and continue to soften the criminal justice system. But you can’t have both.
Rafael A. Mangual is the Nick Ohnell fellow and head of research for policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. He is also the author of Criminal (In)Justice: What the push for decarceration and depolicing gets wrong and who it hurts most.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.