At Northeastern University in Massachusetts, members of campus security are now routinely carrying military assault rifles in their vehicles. The rationale is that you never know when and where terrorists will strike, so you have to be prepared to outgun them at all times.
Many Americans equate guns with safety — and bigness with value. So, the bigger the gun, the safer you are. Right?
It didn’t used to be this way.
Back in the 1970s, I remember when the police got by with .38 revolvers. Up-arming the police meant going from .38 specials to .357 magnums. Of course, these were six-shot revolvers. Then cops started carrying 9mm handguns with clips that could carry 15-18 rounds. Now some cops carry .40 caliber semi-automatics, which are more powerful than the 9mm but also more difficult to control.
You might call it the “Dirty Harry” syndrome (that bigger guns are better), except that that’s being unfair to Harry (played so memorably by Clint Eastwood).
As a teen, I was a big “Dirty Harry” fan, so I remember the rationale for Harry’s Smith & Wesson .44 magnum. He carried it because he was a pistol champion (as he said, “I hit what I aim at”), and because he wanted a round with “penetration” (he noted that .38 rounds “careen off of windshields”). Finally, Harry said he used a “light special” load to limit recoil, saying it was like firing a .357 with wadcutters. (All of this is from memory, which shows you the impression those “Dirty Harry” movies made on a typical teen interested in guns.)
Soon after Harry started boasting about his .44 magnum, a new TV show aired in America: SWAT (standing for “special weapons and tactics”). Police SWAT teams are now common in America, but they were somewhat of a novelty forty years ago. I recall that the team carried AR-15 assault rifles along with specialized sniper rifles and shotguns. They drove around in a big police van and arrived each week just in the nick of time to save the day. My favorite character was the guy who carried the sniper rifle.
My excuse? Heck, I was a teenager! What’s disturbing to me is how my teen enthusiasm for guns is now considered the height of maturity in the USA. So much so that we arm campus police with assault rifles and see it as a prudent and sensible measure to safeguard young students.
The ready availability of guns of all types has created our very own “arms race” in America — an arms race that is being played out, in deadly earnest, each and every day on our streets and in our buildings. We’ve allowed the cold, bold “Dirty Harry” of the early 1970s to be outgunned not only by today’s hardened criminals but by campus cops as well.
Assault rifles and SWAT teams are part of America’s new normal. Rare in the 1970s, they are now as American as baseball and apple pie.
I don’t think even Dirty Harry would be pleased with America’s new reality. Make my day — not.