Events this fall in Ferguson, Missouri, have vividly brought home to American living rooms the realization that police departments in many jurisdictions have become highly militarized, and instead of looking like the friendly neighborhood policeman, now resemble units of the Army’s 101st Airborne parachuted into the center of Afghanistan to find and kill the Taliban.
Congress has rightly begun to review the policy of transferring military armor and weapons to any local police department requesting them without a review of whether they need them in the first place – never mind mandating strict policies for how this military gear may be used.
But because I live in Vermont, I take a slightly different view of the militarization of the police. That’s because ours is a state that has virtually no laws to prevent the militarization of its residents. For instance, it’s perfectly legal in Vermont to own and use guns that fire 50 Caliber bullets. For those unfamiliar with this kind of ammunition, this is the caliber the military uses for its snipers, and for the Army’s most widely used machine gun. It’s the weapon that’s most often seen mounted on the top of Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States Marines Corps website announces that “The 50 Cal Machine Gun can be used effectively against enemy personnel, light armored vehicles and slow, low-flying aircraft.” A 50 caliber bullet is about 5 ½ inches long. It will go through steel plates.
It’s hard to comprehend why such a weapon and its lethal ammunition is legal in Vermont – as well as many other states. I can’t think of any possible use for this military-grade weapon in civilian-hands. And if a Vermont police officer had to respond to a call for help from a house in which a person had barricaded himself behind a 50 caliber rifle, I’d sure want the police officer to be inside one of those same military surplus armored vehicles that looked so out of place in Ferguson.
I believe much of the militarization of our police forces ought to be reversed, and Congress ought to mandate strict standards for the appropriate use of - and training for - military equipment transferred to local police forces. But I don’t think we can realistically expect to completely de-militarize the police, especially in States such as Vermont, until we also de-militarize gun-owners by prohibiting the ownership of weapons that can pass through concrete and steel and still have the power to do more damage.