April 22, 2023

It’s time for police leaders to speak out against weapons of war in our communities


PERF members,

A few days after the March 27 school shooting in Nashville, in which three adults and three nine-year-olds were killed, Louisville Metro Deputy Police Chief Paul Humphrey spoke to a class of graduating recruits. Deputy Chief Humphrey discussed the actions of Metro Nashville officers, who had rushed into the Covenant School without hesitation to confront the shooter. He made the point that there are situations in which officers need to react quickly and be prepared to risk their lives to save others. He told the class that’s what differentiates policing from other occupations.

One member of that graduating class was Nickolas Wilt. Officer Wilt is an impressive man, having previously served as a firefighter and EMT, and his twin brother is currently in the police academy. Ten days after that graduation ceremony, Officer Wilt and his training officer, Cory Galloway, answered a call about a gunman opening fire at a downtown bank. The two responded to the bank within three minutes and were the first officers on scene. Wilt confronted the shooter without hesitation, and the gunman, who had already killed five people, shot the 26-year-old rookie cop in the head. As I write this, Officer Wilt is fighting for his life in a Louisville hospital.  

The officers in both Nashville and Louisville demonstrated courageous policing in the face of a common threat: a shooter armed with an AR-15.

It’s time for police officials to lead the effort to rid our communities of weapons of war. I recognize that assault weapons like the AR-15 are only involved in a small percentage of American shootings and homicides. Cities across the country see cases of gun violence on a daily basis, most of which are committed with handguns. Chicago, Philadelphia, and other major cities regularly see multiple shootings and homicides over the course of a weekend. This is why PERF has pushed for a comprehensive approach to reducing all forms of gun violence, including shootings committed with handguns. But part of that comprehensive approach should be an assault weapons ban.

The lethality of an assault weapon cannot be underestimated, and a shooting with an assault weapon may result in multiple victims in a matter of seconds. Longtime LAPD homicide detective John Skaggs told me he noticed the number of victims per shooting decreased after California instituted an assault weapons ban in 1989. As many police chiefs have told me over the years, these are weapons of war that have no place in our communities.

I’m old enough to remember that police chiefs played a huge role in backing the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. The laws instituted sensible measures, including a five-day waiting period for gun purchases, background checks for guns purchased from federally licensed dealers, and a ban on the manufacturing of assault weapons. Police chiefs played an instrumental role in educating the American public about gun violence in this country. But over time, gun policy has become politicized, and police chiefs, not wanting to come across as political actors, have been cautious about speaking out.  

But given the crisis of gun violence in America, I think the leadership of police chiefs and sheriffs has never been more important. This is an issue of both officer safety and the sanctity of human life. It’s time for law enforcement to lead another push for a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence, including an assault weapons ban.

I recommend you read an extensive series the Washington Post recently published on the AR-15. The series included a history of the weapon; polling about why Americans own AR-15s; analysis of the impact of an AR-15’s bullets on the human body; a history of the advertising used to sell the weapon; the use of AR-15s by militia groups; a look at the role a Sturm, Ruger & Co. manufacturing plant plays in a North Carolina town; the ongoing effects of a 2017 mass shooting in a Texas town; and the paradox faced by police, who could be protected by or killed by an AR-15.

I’m not naïve enough to think that an assault weapons ban would eliminate the possibility that officers or community members may face a threat like an AR-15. But a ban may reduce the firepower available to a shooter like the one in Louisville, who legally purchased an AR-15 a week before the shooting. I don’t think we’ll be able to eliminate gun violence in the foreseeable future (if ever), but we can take sensible and effective steps to reduce gun violence.

I know that an assault weapons ban isn’t enough. Limiting the availability of high-powered firearms was only one of the nine recommendations PERF made in our 2019 report on reducing gun violence. A comprehensive strategy – including certainty of punishment for illegal firearm possession, evidence-based policing strategies to target those responsible for most gun violence, and better usage of ballistics tracking technology – would do even more to reduce gun violence.

And I know some of you will disagree with me. When we polled PERF chiefs and sheriffs on this topic 10 years ago, roughly two-thirds were in favor of reinstating and strengthening the ban on assault weapons, but about one-third opposed the proposal. It’s time that we revisit this discussion. I hope those on all sides of this issue join us at the PERF Annual Meeting in New York City this July to debate and discuss what to do about gun violence. Let’s use this meeting to raise our voices, be heard, and, I hope, reach some consensus on how to keep our communities and our police officers safe.

We may never reach unanimity on the need for stricter gun laws, but a clear majority of Americans want action taken. In a 2022 poll by the University of Chicago, the Associated Press, and NORC, 59% of respondents said they favored a nationwide ban on the sale of AR-15s and similar semiautomatic weapons, while only 27% were opposed. I think we should listen to that majority.