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.
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.
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.
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?
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.