Dan Baum is one of America’s greatest writers. While I disagreed with the pro-gun control editorializing in Gun Guys: A Road Trip — written in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre — I can’t recommend it enough. Mr. Baum’s vignettes of American gun owners are as vivid as a Lilly Pulitzer print, and a lot easier on the eyes. Dan quit writing — and kept writing (of course). An email journal. Here’s a police-related post that hit my inbox, republished with his permission . . .
The pistol hanging on a police officer’s hip represents a catastrophic failure of technology and imagination. A police officer never needs to kill anybody. What he does need to do, occasionally, is instantly incapacitate a suspect — sometimes several, and sometimes at a distance. But that shouldn’t require killing anybody.
It would be hard to think of another realm of technology as grievously stalled. People have been incapacitating each other at distance by blowing bits of metal through them since 1288, when someone in China figured out that if you stuffed some of that cool fireworks powder into a metal tube and inserted a metal ball, you could make something pretty interesting.
Europeans imported them, and discovered that that they were good at bringing down enemies wearing suits of armor that were good against broadswords but no match for gunpowder-propelled balls.
The middle English word for the device was “gonne” — pronounced “gun” — and we’ve essentially been stuck there since then. Guns have gotten better, of course — more accurate, more portable, faster and farther shooting. But we’re still relying on, essentially, a 700-year-old principle to do our fighting.
On the battlefield, sure, you want to kill your enemy. But policemen have no business killing anybody. If the state wants to kill a citizen — and 31 states tragically still do in the form of the death penalty — the process is and should be long and protracted. Yet we give every cop on the beat the equipment to kill a person — many people, actually — and last year, American police officers availed themselves of the opportunity 1,186 times. It’s madness.
What we need is a device that can switch a person off from a distance, and do it reversibly. Tasers aren’t it. They’re too unreliable for situations in which 100-percent reliability is necessary. What we need, essentially, is phasers set to stun.
How hard is that? Phasers, an artifact of Star Trek — are directed-energy weapons that, if turned low, can disorient or knock out a human being instead of cooking him like a steak. If we can master the technology that makes kettle corn so beguilingly salty and sweet, surely we can make a device capable of instantly incapacitating a person at, say, 30 yards, and doing so without causing lasting damage. And even if it does cause a little lasting damage, it has to be less than a 158-grain jacketed hollowpoint crashing through one’s sternum at 1,200 feet per second.
Aside from police officers, imagine if everybody who now keeps a gun for protection knew he would make himself equally safe with a non-lethal device. Sure, such technology would invite such social problems as people using them to incapacitate people they want to rob. But still, we’d be way better off.
I had an editor at Scientific American interested in a story about this, but couldn’t find any brain scientists even thinking about it. The Army has an entire non-lethal weapons program in New Mexico, but it’s mostly devoted to crowd-dispersal technology.
Can it really be true that for situations as common and solemn a police officer drawing his gun, we’re still living in 1288?