After the mass shooting in Roseburg, Or., it was notable that local Sheriff John Hanlin is an ardent supporter of gun rights. He’d written Vice President Joe Biden after the 2012 Newtown, Ct., school massacre saying gun control was not the answer. NPR says that what wasn’t widely reported was how common views like Hanlin’s are in law enforcement. “Talking about firearms now is like talking about race,” says Richard Beary, chief of police at the University of Central Florida and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “These are difficult conversations, and people get very polarized on each side of it.” It’s not unusual to see law enforcement executives arguing with each other. In Milwaukee, Sheriff David Clarke is a champion of gun rights; he attacked the city administration for being “anti-gun” and “anti-Second Amendment” Police Chief Edward Flynn responded by saying he wouldn’t hold back from talking about guns and how they get into the hands of criminals.
Jennifer Carlson of the University of Toronto, who studies police attitudes toward gun laws, says this divide has grown since the 1990s. A generation ago, she says, police chiefs backed gun-control legislation. “And now you’ve really seen police not taking as much as a unified stance, at least publicly,” she says. “That’s been a major shift.” She thinks this may have something to do with the expansion of concealed handgun permits, which gun rights groups pushed for especially hard starting in the late 1990s. Police chiefs initially resisted the expansion of the gun permits, but Carlson says many of them changed their minds when they saw that increased permits didn’t cause a big increase in shootings.