Tear-gassing cops' new opponent: Why Gun Owners of America wants reform

Insane police response to Ferguson has opened door to action on police demilitarization -- with an unusual alliance

Published August 18, 2014 3:04PM (EDT)

Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014.                      (AP/Jeff Roberson)
Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

Last Wednesday night may have marked a shift in U.S. policymaking attitudes. As the police in Ferguson, Missouri, just straight-up started arresting and tear-gassing and pointing their snipers and death tanks at everyone, all while wearing unnecessary and some might say counterintuitive tuff guy jungle-camo outfits, the nation seemed to collectively realize that this was insane. Why are suburban police departments armed to duel with Megatron in situations where they're supposed to be "keeping the peace"?

It, of course, wasn't the first instance of the growing trend of police militarization -- wherein local police departments are outfitted with hand-me-down goodies procured by the Defense Department, allowing the friendly local constable to warp into an expensive murder-robot sent on a mission to exterminate the scourge of jaywalkers. But the scene in Ferguson caught the public's eye to such an extent that politicians and officials -- the president, the attorney general, the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, Missouri politicians, and de facto libertarian leaders felt compelled to weigh in.

"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community," Eric Holder said, "I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message." "We need to demilitarize this situation," Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill weighed in, noting that "this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution." And Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning 2016 hopeful, wrote an Op-Ed about how "we must demilitarize the police," a risk that could loosen the soil on the right's traditionally rigid law-and-order posture.

Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, has been working on a bill to demilitarize the police for some time, his office said, and is now rushing the process to have the proposal ready for when Congress reconvenes in September. The bill would limit the Pentagon program that funnels this sleek, deadly gear down to the local police departments and SWAT teams that use them to terrorize people in order to protect the peace.

Johnson criticized the Pentagon's '1033' program, which offers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement, including M16 rifles and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP).

He noted in the last several months those vehicles have been given to cities in Texas, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Illinois and Alabama.

"This trend is not only sweeping America's small cities, it's hitting American college campuses as well. Ohio State University recently acquired an MRAP," he said. "Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy."

Johnson said his bill would limit the type of equipment that could be transferred and would make sure states track all equipment received.

What's most interesting about Johnson's proposal, at the moment, is the odd left-right political coalition of outside groups that is organizing around it. The ACLU supports it, as does Gun Owners of America. Wait a second? Did we just say "Gun Owners of America," a crazy group to the right of the NRA, supports it? Apparently so:

According to the Defense Logistics Agency, more than $4 billion in discounted military equipment has been sold to local police departments since the 1990s.

“Why are those guns available to the police?” asked Erich Pratt, spokesman for the conservative Gun Owners of America. “We don't technically have the military operating within our borders, but they're being given the gear to basically operate in that capacity.”

Gun Owners of America and the ACLU are both backing a forthcoming bill from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that would curtail the sale of DOD weapons to local police departments.

The support of a group like GOA could provide cover to Republicans and conservative Democrats looking to support a police demilitarization bill.

Still: Congress. We're going to guess that Johnson's bill won't go anywhere any time soon in this Congress. The story of police response in Ferguson, sadly, will probably disappear from national media focus by the time Congress reconvenes in September. Congress doesn't pass any high-profile legislation in the first place, and it certainly won't in the couple weeks in which it will be in session before heading off to campaign through November. It would be especially hard for most Republicans and a good number of centrist/conservative Democrats to go directly against the wishes of the Fraternal Order of Police in the months ahead of an election, too.

But while the situation in Ferguson has been horrible, it's appropriately drawn a new level of scrutiny from right- and left-wingers alike to one of the more ludicrous government programs out there. And it fits into what is, hopefully, one of the few decent paradigm shifts happening on the national political level today: unwinding the ridiculous criminal justice complex that politicians have spent decades amassing. When it comes to police demilitarization and sentencing reform for nonviolent offenders, the certain elements of the right feel more comfortable now entertaining proposals to loosen things, and the left feels less pressure to act self-parodically "tough on crime" to attract white suburban people. We may not be "there" yet, in terms of passing meaningful legislation, but hopefully the situation will be viable enough for the next president -- Democratic or Republican -- to act forcefully.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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