Public Safety v. Private Safety

by Gary Marbut, Montana Shooting Sports Association
author, Gun Laws of Montana

Us v. Them?

In opposition remarks about legislation to enable citizen self defense, the representative of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association declared that MSPOA viewed the legislation as a contest between "public safety" and "private safety."  This announced the "us versus them" bias that some law enforcement entities may have.

Retired Los Angeles Police Department detective Joseph Wambaugh writes fiction about police and policing.  A very experienced observer of police personnel, Wambaugh speaks through his characters about the attitude and the worldview of police officers.  Police officers, Wambaugh says, see people as divided into two categories, cops and perps (police slang for criminal perpetrators).  Any person not wearing a badge and not in prison, according to this attitude, just hasn't been caught yet committing his or her special crime.

Is this the starting point for law enforcement entities to consider citizen self defense?  Is this the sort of respect law enforcement leaders hold for the citizens they are supposed to serve?  Is this attitude leaking into Montana from high-density, urban centers?  These are questions worth pondering as we examine public safety, and then private safety.

Public Safety

Terms.  As used in this examination, "police" and "police officers" includes sworn employees of the Montana Highway Patrol and county sheriff's offices, as well as those of city police departments.

Mission creep.  Although those who wear badges and guns were once commonly thought of as "peace officers," the title has changed and they are now more commonly known as "law enforcement personnel."  With that change in descriptor has come a change in mission.  The mission of peace officers used to be to keep the peace in their communities, especially by protecting the weak from those strong and predatory who are always among us.  However, with the change to becoming law enforcement personnel it has become the primary mission of those with guns and badges to enforce laws - to apply the edicts of  various levels of government, with force if necessary.  It is posited that this change in mission is not desirable a for people who value individual liberty.

No duty to protect.  The oft-expressed motto of police "to serve and protect" has come to be a misnomer.  It has been firmly established in the Nation's courts (e.g., Warren v. DC) that police agencies and police personnel have no duty to protect any individual - none, but only a duty to provide a general level of protection (which has not been defined) to the community.  This legal doctrine is well documented. [1- A, B, and C]

If a serial murderer is kicking in your door intending to murder you, and you call 911 to ask for protection, police have no duty whatsoever to even respond.  If they do respond, they have no duty to respond quickly.  If they do respond quickly, they have no duty to do anything effective to protect you once they do arrive.

Sometimes nobody answers 911 calls; Portland, OR, 2006 [2]
Sometimes no officers respond; Everett, WA, 2006 [3]

This is underscored by an incident in Bozeman.    The Bozeman Police Department responded to a 911 call about a knife-wielding assailant at a convenience store in Bozeman.  BPD personnel surrounded the convenience store with guns drawn, and held in that surround for 45 minutes while the knife-toting robber raped the female convenience store clerk.

This is not to say that individual officers don't want very much to protect innocent people.  Most officers in Montana do.  However, current law says that they are not obligated to do so, and inadequate or interfering policies too often lead to tragedies such as the one in Bozeman.

Response times.  A common saying among those who believe in self defense is, "When seconds count, police are only minutes away."  This principle is nowhere more accurate than in Montana, so much of which is rural.  We live in Montana for the lifestyle, not for the big money.  Because Montana is not a wealthy place, we cannot afford to hire enough police officers to insure that they are likely be nearby at the moment any individual needs protection.  Even if we could afford to hire enough police officers that one would be likely to be nearby when needed, we wouldn't do so.  To do so would give us a police state, the antithesis of liberty so cherished by Montanans.  We will never have short enough response times for police officers in Montana to save victims of quickly-propagating crimes.  It is said, there will only be two people at the crime scene - the criminal and the victim.  This is why police are sometimes called the "thin blue line,"  a very thin, indeed, in Montana. 

2006, U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics [4]:
11.7% of police responses to crimes of violence were within one day or longer
Only 26.6% of police responses were within five minutes
32% of police responses were between six and ten minutes
Almost 42% of police responses took over ten minutes

Large cities have an average response time of seven minutes for high priority calls [5]
Brittany Zimmerman slain after 911 call, police do not respond; Madison, WI 2008 [6]
Response time to rural accidents in Montana is 1 hour 20 minutes [7]
Response time to high priority calls in Madison County, MT, is 28 minutes [8]

Arrest and case closure rates.  Since police cannot reliably interdict individual crimes, then their function comes to be the cleanup crew.  They bring the body bags, crime scene tape and photographers to the incident.  They attempt to catch the criminal and bring the criminal to justice, and thereby both get the criminal-minded off the streets and to create a deterrent to others who might consider criminal acts.  But catching criminals is not that easy.  In fact, only about 45% of violent crimes are solved by police.  Thus, a person who is not protected by police, who is not able to protect himself or herself, and who is murdered, can die with the scant comfort of knowing there is a small chance that his or her murderer will be arrested (of whom only some will be convicted).  "Nationwide in 2007, law enforcement cleared 44.5 percent of violent crimes …"  (FBI, Uniform Crime Report) [9]

Officer safety.  Much ado has been raised about armed citizens and officer safety.  That topic is certainly worth addressing.  The mechanism of injury that causes the greatest risk of loss of life and serious injury to police officers is -- motor vehicles.  Notwithstanding training, seat belt usage, crash resistant vehicles, and other risk management tools, motor vehicles are far the most dangerous part of police officers' lives.  Even if a police officer is adept or lucky enough to not crash his own car, he or she is subject to being wrecked by some other motor vehicle operator (happened recently in Montana).  When out of their cars, they are even subject to being run down by motorists (happened not too long ago in Montana).

Motor vehicles are simply more dangerous to police officers than firearms.  So, if one looks at officer safety from an objective risk management perspective, officers should be more fearful of motor vehicles than of guns, too often their own cars.

According to FBI data, in 2007, 55 officers were killed by gunfire.  During that same period, 70 officer deaths are attributed to motor vehicles.  [10]
The only Montana police officer killed in 2008 was killed in a motor vehicle accident. [11]

If their own cars can be dangerous to officers, what about their own guns?  A study done of the Los Angeles Police Department determined that 43% of all officers who were shot were shot with police guns.  This includes some officers shot in training accidents.  It includes accidental discharges (careless gun handling) where an officer shot himself or herself or another officer.  It includes "friendly fire" incidents where a police officer shot at a bad guy but hit a fellow officer instead.  It does not include incidents where a police officer's gun is taken away and use against the officer (happened in Montana this decade).  And, tragically, it doesn't include officer suicides, an endemic problem not well known about the police community.  So, if a person argues that guns are dangerous to police, one must also acknowledge that police guns are probably as dangerous to police officers as are guns in the hands of people who are not police officers.

In both the Los Angeles PD and SO, accidental firearm discharges and friendly fire account for about 43% of officers shot.  [12- A and B]

Private Safety

Private citizens use firearms lawfully to ward off attacks between 2 million and 2 1/2 million times each year (Dr Gary Kleck, Northwestern University School of Law, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 86, issue 1, 1995).  [13- A and B]

Shots are actually fired by these citizens in only 8% of the instances of legitimate self defense. [14]

Victims who defend themselves with firearms are much less likely to be injured (Robbery 7.7%; Assault 3.6%) than those who make no attempt at self defense (Robbery 23.6%, Assault 55.2%) or who use other means.  [15]

Suppressing guns in the hands of private citizens does NOT reduce victimization by criminals:

"But the experience in other countries, even island nations that have gone so far as banning handguns and where borders are easy to monitor, should give [opponents of citizen self defense] some pause. These are places that just can't blame the United States or other neighboring states for the failure of their gun-control laws. Not only didn't violent crime and homicide decline as promised, but they actually increased.

"Great Britain banned handguns in January, 1997. But the number of deaths and injuries from gun crime in England and Wales increased 340% in the seven years from 1998 to 2005. The rates of serious violent crime, armed robberies, rapes and homicide have also soared. The Republic of Ireland and Jamaica also experienced large increases in murder rates after enacting handgun bans."  Professor John Lott  [16- A and B]

More guns, not less, would prevent shooting massacres, as was recently demonstrated in the Glasgow, Montana shooting incident.  [17]

Finally, so-called "gun free zones" are among the most dangerous places in America.  [18- A and B]

Public Safety versus Private Safety

A legitimate way to look at this issue is that for every individual police officer killed by criminal (not armed citizen) gunfire in 2007, at least 36,363 armed citizens were able to use firearms to ward off criminal attacks.  While the 55 officers lost are tragic, it pales in comparison to the millions of citizens who were able to use firearms to save themselves when police couldn't be there, or couldn't get there in time - when police failed to protect citizens.

In terms of public policy and the large picture, there is absolutely no question about which is more important to or beneficial to the public, public safety (police protection) or private safety (citizen self defense).

Public safety is clearly "Plan B," intended to provide the body bags for victims and to bring some predators to justice.  But "public safety" should never be allowed to supplant "Plan A," or "private safety," allowing private citizens the unfettered ability to protect themselves.

© 2010, Gary Marbut

[1] A (Warren v. DC)











[12] A

[13] A



[16] A


[18] A