Criminal Justice Professor John Eterno on the Supreme Court and Gun Safety
As published in The Atlantic
by John A. Eterno
Police officers have a vested interest in keeping illegal guns off the streets, a difficult-enough task already. Now the United States Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen has found unconstitutional the New York law that strictly limited who could carry a firearm in public in the nation’s largest metropolis. At one blow, this ruling ends a restriction that has for decades helped hold down the number of guns in private hands in New York City. The Court’s decision has made the job of the New York Police Department much harder overnight.
Officers never know what will happen next. On patrol they may walk into a deli and be confronted with an armed robbery. They may conduct a routine car stop only to find themselves faced with a violent felon willing to murder a cop. Today I’m a professor of criminal justice, but I spent more than 20 years in the NYPD; I retired with the rank of captain. Gun crime was fairly common in the 1980s and ’90s but we had reasonable laws to enforce that helped us control the prevalence of illegal guns. Working a midnight shift one night, my partner was driving us in a marked car back to the precinct house when I saw a man threatening a group of people outside a bar. He had a gun in his hand.
My partner pulled over quickly. The moment I got out, I was facing the man from a distance of about eight feet, with no cover whatsoever. The crowd of people shrank back in anticipation of a violent confrontation. I had unholstered my gun and was ready to shoot. Had I done so, it would have been a clear-cut situation that entitled me to use deadly force. But I did not pull the trigger.
Part of it was being aware of the crowd behind the man and the risk of an innocent bystander getting shot, but part of it was simply an instinct about how to handle the situation. I walked up to the man, forced the gun from his hand, and placed him under arrest.
This all happened in seconds, so quickly that I, like most officers, had reacted simply on the basis of my experience and training. We were trained, of course, to handle any kind of gun encounter that might arise, but they were rare. Today’s Supreme Court decision threatens that rarity.
Law-enforcement training is focused on saving lives. Gun violence in the United States is an all-too-real fixture. News media are filled with stories of rising crime, shootings, and murders. By the very nature of their job, police officers are on the front line: In 2021 and to date, 92 officers in the U.S. have been killed by guns.
Compared with other Western democracies, American culture is more violent and more affected by illegal drugs. Indeed, the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs, accounting for an estimated quarter of global demand. In police parlance, where there are drugs, there are guns. The U.S. has an unparalleled density of gun ownership: more than 120 guns for every 100 residents, which is more than double the rate of the country with the next-highest ranking, Yemen, a nation that has been racked by civil war for years. In America, 79 percent of homicides are committed with a gun; the equivalent figure in the United Kingdom is 4 percent.
Police understand that American citizens have constitutional liberties, including Second Amendment rights; police are there to protect both people and the Constitution. But what makes sense in upstate rural areas is not necessarily good policy for densely populated metropolitan areas with busy plazas and packed subways. One reasonable limitation on gun ownership would be proper licensing: We require licensing for most professionals—including teachers, lawyers, nurses, lifeguards, doctors, police officers, electricians, and others—yet not to hold and use a firearm?
Common sense also dictates that owning a gun requires some level of safety training and care. We expect our police officers to have this competence with the sidearms they carry, so why wouldn’t we ask the same of anyone who wants to carry a gun in public? Someone who wants to purchase a weapon should have to demonstrate a basic level of expertise and safety awareness.
Suicide is another concern. More than half of suicides in the United States involve a gun, and more than half of gun deaths are suicides. The availability of a gun greatly increases the risk of suicide. The tragic fact is that I know more police officers who have taken their own lives with their service weapon than those who have been killed in the line of duty.
I do not argue for preventing law-abiding citizens from owning guns, but let’s start with strong background checks for all purchases, including those made through the internet, trade shows, and private sales—and let’s eliminate the loopholes. Insurance should be required by federal law as well. If someone uses a gun and causes harm, that needs to be covered by insurance—just as car owners must have insurance. This measure would also protect the gun owner from liability in case something goes wrong, such as an accidental discharge.
Even before the Supreme Court decision, the NYPD had to deal with illegal firearms—most of them contraband from states with lax gun-control regimes. The city has seen a spate of shootings recently, an aspect of rising violent crime that Mayor Eric Adams has made a priority to tackle. But the policing initiatives he touted earlier this year as an effective way of getting illegal guns out of our communities will be hampered by this change to the law.
The answer to rising violent crime is better policing, not more people arming themselves. Those who worked to end the New York law should ask themselves whether they really want to live in an America where public safety comes down to armed self-defense and vigilantism rather than reassuring, effective police work.
Law enforcement needs a supportive public. Reasonable gun control is not optional but absolutely necessary to protect citizens and to allow police to do their job. Today, a crucial law that made public-safety sense in a huge, dense, busy city has been nullified. I worry that this ruling will force cops to act with greater caution and suspicion, and work in more defensive ways that will harm community relations. I worry that the streets of New York just got less safe.
About the author: John A. Eterno, a retired NYPD captain and a professor at Molloy University, is a co-author of The Crime Numbers Game.