In the Dirty Harry movies of the '70s and '80s, Clint Eastwood shot up the bad guys with his over-the-top Smith and Wesson that he often growled was “the most powerful handgun in the world.”
Dirty Harry's gun was much bigger (.45 caliber) than the .38 special revolvers used by the vast majority of police officers at the time. However, the .38 fired the same way—requiring the hammer be pulled back each time between shots—and could only fire six shots before it had to be reloaded.
Those .38 caliber handguns are what most Americans see in their mind's eye when they think about police officers firing their weapons, but it’s not even close to the guns used by police officers today.
In the late '80s a movement began to better arm police officers, on the premise that they couldn’t be expected to defend themselves or anyone else against criminals who were using semi-automatic, high-caliber guns. By the end of the '90s, almost every law enforcement agency in the country had mothballed their .38 special revolvers in favor of semi-automatic pistols that ranged in sized from a .38 (9mm) and .45 caliber, held up to seventeen bullets (instead of six) and, most importantly, could fire up to four shots per second, instead of one shot per second.
Many police departments have started routinely using slightly modified M-16s and AR-15 semi-automatic machine guns that have cartridges the size of AA batteries and can shoot up to about thirteen bullets a second.
What this all means is that if someone is in a situation with the police and officers make the assessment that the offender is a threat, “immediate incapacitation” is more probable than ever to result in death. A perpetrator is not only more likely to be shot many more times than before, but often with a larger “Dirty Harry”-size bullet.
At the same time that police departments have leapt on every new technological advancement to move toward deadlier weapons, they’ve been slow to utilize the non-lethal weapons and technological advancements available—such as “smart guns” that allow only the owner of the handgun to fire it, which would not only prevent a perpetrator from using an officer’s gun against him but would void the oft-used “they were going for my gun” justification in police shootings.
Take the recent fatality in Wisconsin, where an unarmed Tony Robinson was shot seven times by a Madison police officer who said he was struck in the head by a high-on-mushrooms Robinson, who had been attacking people. The officer shot Robinson with a 9mm caliber handgun (actually on the small side among handguns carried by most law enforcement officers today); however, because it was a semi-automatic handgun with seventeen bullet magazines, it could spit bullets out at a blistering pace—about seven shots a second. And, as is the standard operating procedure, the officer shot Robinson out of fear that Robinson could wrestle-away the officer’s handgun and shoot him or someone else with it.
It didn’t have to end that way: There are many reasonable scenarios where Robinson could have been immediately incapacitated and survived the arrest.
What if the police officer was carrying a non-lethal weapon (such as the handgun attachment that fires a metallic sphere that feels like getting hit with a hammer) and used that to incapacitate Robinson? What if the police officer had a “smart gun” and didn’t need to worry about Robinson stealing his gun? What if Robinson had been shot with the .38 special revolver police officers used to use? He likely would have been shot only once and incapacitated, but with at least the possibility of surviving.
It's close to impossible to survive getting shot seven times, however. And while it made sense that the police would arrest Tony Robinson, given his erratic and violent behavior, he didn't deserve the death penalty.
Jud Lounsbury is a political reporter based in Madison, Wisconsin. Previously, Lounsbury served as a press secretary for several politicians and organizations, including Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin, and Al Gore's Iowa campaign.