Gun rights circles are buzzing over Facebook gloating by a Branford, Connecticut, police officer over the power the state's new gun (and magazine) registration law gives him to kick in doors and snatch firearms. The comments seem to have earned Officer Joseph Peterson a little time out of the office. They also wonderfully illustrate the dangers of letting politicians turn every bugaboo and pet peeve into an excuse for officials great and small to use their power against citizens. Because even if some restrictive laws are good ideas (and most are not), they'll inevitably be enforced by people who will abuse their authority.
Most arguments against government policies turn on their moral and practical failings, assuming that they're implemented with unified intentions, good or bad. Arguments against gun laws generally hinge on the disempowerment of individuals relative to the state. But laws are enforced by individuals with varying competence and agendas that may have nothing to do with the bigger picture. In the case of the Branford, Connecticut, Police Department's Officer Joseph Peterson, the law apparently represents an opportunity to wield a raging hard-on for power and to lord it over the little people.
In a heated Facebook conversation about Connecticut's gun registration law, enforcement, and defiance thereof, supplied by activist John Cinque to Freedom Outpost, Peterson remarked at one point, "I give my left nut to bang down your door and come for your gun…you idiot grow up."
Peterson isn't the first person to lose his cool in a social media conversation, but that's the point. Many people blow their stacks in public and private in ways that reveal their inner asshole, but most of them aren't authorized to handcuff people, kick in doors, and potentially kill in the enforcement of laws. That power demands self control and a hell of a lot of integrity. The more laws you have on the books, the more interactions between citizens and enforcers that will put that integrity and self control to the test.
Once Peterson's Facebook comments became public, the Branford Police Department issued a press release (below) announcing that an unnamed officer is under investigation for Facebook comments. The department didn't return a call by press time, so it's not entirely certain that the officer in question is Peterson (though if not, the department has a bigger problem than appears at first glance), and it's not clear whether the Workers' Compensation Leave is a response to the incident, or a pre-existing condition.
But here's the thing: For every person who says something stupid in public, an unknown number of other people think the same thing but have the wisdom to leave it unspoken. That Peterson wishes publicly for an opportunity to "bang down your door and come for your gun" is a good sign that other cops want to do exactly that, but don't post the sentiment on Facebook.
Lord Acton's comment that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" isn't just a trite throw-away line—it's a recognition of reality. Human beings abuse any authority given to them. Offer them a license to kick in doors and they'll covet and misuse that, too. That's a great reason to keep the excuses for using such coercive power to an absolute minimum.
Peterson's Facebook comments aren't remarkable because his sentiments are unusual, but because they're not at all out of the ordinary. And so are the dangers they represent.