Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 11, 2015

“Please Tase Me, Bro”: Could American Police Give up the Gun?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 11, 2015

This post was written by Eagle Eggs, and originally appeared at this link: https://medium.com/homeland-security/please-tase-me-bro-could-american-police-give-up-the-gun-a2b8f19461de

600 years ago the Japanese gave up the gun…could American police?

Firearms came to Japan in 1543 via Portuguese traders. “The gun,” says technological historian David Nye “would appear to be the classic case of a weapon that no society could reject once it had been introduced. Yet the Japanese did just that.” Japanese manufacturers began producing high quality weapons, they proved decisive in key battles, and yet the Japanese abandoned them for almost two hundred years, until Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to the West in 1853. The reason for this rejection was cultural. The efficiency of the gun did not align with the samurai class notions of honor, and the gun vanished from Japanese culture for more than 300 years. The social meanings of technology, it seems, matter as much as technology.


16th C. German Firearm


Weapons are an expression of the cultures that produce them. As instruments of violence, they tell us about the values and structures of the societies that invent them. In the hands of police officers, they are about the way a culture authorizes its agents of order to use force, and the tools it permits them to use. Where the 16th century Japanese did not accept firearms, guns evidently reflect American values, and are attuned to the rhythms of American culture. Perhaps guns are as integrally American as Sikh chakrams (hoop-like throwing knives worn around the turban). No turban, no chakram.


A Sikh, with a Chakram, like a boss


This year in Garland, Texas, a badly outgunned traffic cop with a Glock heroically took down two would be mass murdering terrorists packing assault rifles and body armor. Scarcely a month earlier, a police officer in Charleston South Carolina shot and killed an unarmed man in the back after a traffic stop.

 These two episodes display an American bargain: lethal force authorized, used for good, and abused. And each highlights the central role of the firearm in American policing.


But what about non-lethal force?

 In feudal Japan, Samurai police officers carried specialized, non-lethal tools for controlling suspects. Check out the sodegarami (sleeve entangler) below. It looks sinister, but it was a non-lethal control weapon. An old timey taser. And it is uniquely reflective of Japanese culture — designed specially to be thrust into kimono sleeves and twisted to control the subject and distance the police officer. The spikes on the shaft prevent the subject from disentangling himself. The use of swords was highly regulated in Japanese society as well, making the sodegarami, and other control weapons essential alternatives for Samurai.

Japanese sodegarami

 Like the Japanese sodegarami, the taser was designed as a non-lethal alternative. But not as part of a strictly regulated culture of honor. Jack Higson Cover invented the taser stun gun in 1972 as a means to save lives. It is a weapon that expressed a value. But the thing that Americans seem to dislike about the taser is also contained in its non-lethality. If it does not kill, perhaps the bar for using it is considerably lower. In other words, police will use a taser a lot more than they would a lethal weapon precisely because it isn’t lethal. And we don’t like that. Do we like the alternative?


The X26 Taser


A May 2011 study by the Department of Justice found that using controlled energy devices (like tasers) reduced injuries in both suspects and officers.

So what makes a culture accept or reject a weapon? History is instructive. The crossbow was widely used in medieval warfare, but very little was said about it. You won’t find accounts of knights using it in battle (though they almost certainly did) or of the numbers killed by crossbow. According to historians, that’s because it was considered a shameful, and even sinful weapon.

The moral objections, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, were about social class. Says Stark:

“…this revolutionary weapon allowed untrained peasants to be lethal enemies of the trained soldiery. It took many years of training to become a knight, and the same was true for archers.”

Weapons like this are great democratizers. And this may explain part of the reason that the firearm is so quintessentially American. It’s a democratic weapon. Like the American preference for the automobile over the train, the gun is a tool of the individual, an asset and armory to personal responsibility, self direction, liberty.

Guns have been an integral part of the American experiment, and with good reason — they were tied to both liberation from tyranny and survival. But it’s worth asking, even in a culture that values guns, why we insist that our police officers have them. The Japanese emphasis on the sword included limitations on the kinds of weapons police carried. Can our culture imagine an America where the police do not carry guns? Probably not. The bad guys have guns.

Still, the use of lethal police force is under intense scrutiny at the moment, in the wake of horrifying and highly publicized fatalities. In some ways, it seems that our national relationship with non-lethal means of police control is more complicated than the way we think about police having guns.

America is a gun culture. Is it also a taser culture? The taser, like the baton or the sodegarami, is a tool of control. Perhaps perversely, this is somehow less American than the authorization to use lethal force. What meanings are we going to give to relatively new technologies, and what will we make of older ones? If we can properly understand what guns and tasers mean to our culture, then we’ll better understand whether our police should have them.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by John Comiskey

May 12, 2015 @ 5:30 am

I agree, America has a gun culture. America also has a results-oriented culture. We create programs/organizations to produce solutions (outcomes) to our problems. Ultimately, police programs and police organizations are created to thwart and respond to crime. Guns are both part of the solution and part of the problem.

Rhetorically, some call for disarming the police. Do they have a program (or app) for that? Let’s get serious.

A number of high-profile police-involved shootings/in-custody deaths have pervaded our media in the last 12 months. A number of high profile police murders and assassinations have also been in the news, though less so and with less rhetoric. Does anyone see that the two are connected? IMHO, the shame and blames games has been played by too many for too long. Let’s look at the big picture?

About 800,000 state and local police officers from over 17,000 police agencies confront/arrest millions of citizens every year.

The vast majority of confrontees/arrestees civilly submit to their confrontation/arrest. Some resist and physical force is used to subdue the resisters.

Emphatically, in civil society no citizen may physically resist arrest. Empathically, if no citizen resisted arrest, the next paragraph would not be necessary.

On rarer occasions some resisters use deadly physical to resist arrest. In those cases, the police also use deadly physical force to (a) save their own lives and the lives of others and (b) to subdue the resister. Sometimes the police officer is killed or injured and sometimes the resister is killed or injured.

If the police officer is killed, society lionizes the officer for his virtue and ultimate sacrifice. If the resister is killed, the police officer’s actions will be scrutinized and rightly so. But, let’s be careful here. Let’s be very careful.

The officer must be judged objectively: What would a reasonable person do under the circumstances?
Not to be included in that judgment is the “sense of the crowd,” the “sense of the media” or the “sense of activist politicians/prosecutors.”

Justice Department and Major Police Departments are listening to America. America wants and deserves better policing. I have long thought about this and offer the following suggestions for now. More to come.

1. The police must be more professional and independent:

Policing should not be tied to government revenue producing initiatives. See http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

Stop, Question, and Frisk policies must comply with the law. See http://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p306-pub.pdf

2. Americans should be taught that(a) all lives matters and (b) resisting arrests hazards all lives

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 7:25 am

Great post and comment. IMO the lethality of SOCIAL MEDIA remains unexplored territory. Do all policer officers carry an I-phone or other cell phone? Most of those arrested do so and in fact many in prisons have them.

In my time at FEMA, two Special Police under GSA delegation had their weapons taken away for reasons of emotional disturbance, and both committed suicide shortly thereafter.


Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 9:33 am

BTW private security forces with guns and badges far outnumber LE community that are government employees. Is this a problem?

Comment by Jack

May 15, 2015 @ 8:43 am

“God may have created all men equal, but Sam Colt made them so.”–Popular saying in the “wild west”

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>