The people tasked with keeping us safe are finding it difficult to assess serious threats when everyone has a gun.
image via (cc) flickr users weaverphoto
Just before an armed assailant opened fire last month, killing three innocent people in the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado, police received a call from bystander Naomi Bettis, concerned about a man she'd observed walking around carrying a firearm. "I didn't like the first dispatcher," Bettis tells The Colorado Springs Gazette "Because she says 'You know in Colorado, they do have an open/concealed weapon" law. While Bettis’ call was logged, it was not assigned the “highest priority call for service” in the police dispatch system.
When Bettis called again a short time later, it was to report that the same suspicious figure carrying a gun had begun shooting.
The tragic incident points to a growing concern among certain corners of law enforcement, regarding how best to gauge threats in communities where open and concealed carry laws are in effect. Speaking with The Gazette, a number of Colorado police officials describe the difficulties they face in assessing risk to the public—and then assigning police resources—in these types of circumstances. Explained Chris Heberer, chief of the Fountain, CO police department: "The problem that we all face is that we never have all the information." He went on to explain that dispatchers try to use contextual clues, such as a caller’s level of panic, to assess prioritization. Similarly, Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police president Rich Brandt points to a lack of uniformity across dispatch systems when it comes to assessing these sorts of calls.
The frustration expressed by these officials is shared by other law enforcement professionals, as well. A survey of Texas Police chiefs showed an overwhelming number of them were opposed open carry laws, reported The Dallas Morning News in February, 2015. Of the nearly 200 police chiefs polled as part of the survey, just under 75 percent opposed pending legislation (now since passed into law) that would allow the open carry of handguns, with nearly half of those surveyed saying that someone participating in open carry should “display some sort of identification on the outside of his person at all times.”
More recently, last month the Florida Sheriff’s Association came out strongly opposed to that state’s proposed open carry legislation, with over 80 percent of members voting for the Association to stand against Senate Bill 300, which would allow Floridians with concealed weapons permits (some one and a half million people, in all) to carry their guns, un-holstered, without any supplemental training or accreditation. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri serves as the Sheriff’s Association Legislative Committee Chair; when asked by the Palm Beach Post how deputies can “know the difference between a good guy with a gun and a bad guy with a gun?” Gualtieri explained:
“That is a concern. I can tell you that law enforcement agencies don’t even allow their non-uniformed officers to open-carry. That’s the point right there. You can’t tell what somebody’s motives are and what they are not. It’s 3 in the morning, you see somebody walking down the road, you see a guy with two .45s in their waistband, you can’t assume they are a law-abiding citizen with a permit.”
There are those advocate who argue that civic safety would benefit by the loosening of restrictions on where, and what, guns can be carried in public. Increasingly, however, it seems as if the law enforcement officers actually tasked with keeping our communities safe aren’t quite so certain.