The photo above, which features a camouflaged police officer sitting atop a mine-resistant armored truck in Ferguson, Missouri, with a decked-out rifle, has been widely circulated as evidence of how militarized the American police force has become. To the trained eye, it's also suggestive of how poorly prepared those police are to be militarized.
Reddit's gun aficionados are pointing out that the rifle is so loaded with conflicting gadgets—a flashlight, "red dot" sight, bipod—that it demonstrates that the officer probably isn't very familiar with using it. One user, who owns two similar weapons, called it a "novice" setup. Others called it "goofy," "HORRIBLE," and a "waste of taxpayer dollars." It's also part of a trend—many of the rifles being used in Ferguson have the same setup, which baffles the gun owners and enthusiasts over at r/Guns.
"[I]t's a really goofy and impractical setup. If that is a standard configuration then they are wasting a lot of money for no other reason than to look like characters from Call of Duty," thereddaikon wrote.
Like countless other Americans, I've watched with awe and horror the events unfolding in the small St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people. I saw mine-proof vehicles, flash bang grenades, rifles, and tear gas being deployed against unarmed protestors, so I set out to write about the range of technology the civilians were up against.
I'm not a gun expert, however, so I turned to Reddit's r/guns forum, which has been very helpful in the past, for some background. I asked if they could tell me what kind of gun the officer in the photo was using. The response—on the thread, and in direct messages—was nearly immediate, and certainly unexpected.
"Probably an AR10 style rifle in 308. It could be chambered in 5.56 NATO," user ToxDoc wrote. "That set up would actually be kind of goofy, if the whole thing weren't so screwed up."
Another, Prettyniceguytoo, chimed in soon after: "That's actually hilarious. Reminds me of this classic picture."
"He seems to be using high powered optics... for relatively short/medium range," Prettyniceguytoo wrote. "He has a flashlight, a bipod but is using a tripod and has a red dot sight mounted at the front of his gun on a 45 mount on the wrong side of the gun. Also, it's usually best to shoot without wearing a helmet that gets in the way but that's forgivable."
"All in all, this guy looks like a goof and I'd be amazed if he was even capable of aligning his scope and rifle," the user went on. "Also, the fact he's wearing Marine camouflage (MARPAT) shows just how militarized their police force is."
In other words, it's evidence that many police in Ferguson have little idea how to use the weapons tech they've loaded onto their guns. They also referenced other officers carrying similar weapons as evidence that "it seems it's a standard (HORRIBLE!) setup for them." Perhaps this is part of the reason that the FBI had to be called in.
User IrishCherokee agreed: "He has no justifiable need for at least half the stuff he has. It would be his prerogative to do this on his own time and dollar... and sure, we would still make fun of him.... but the fact that he is a public servant blatantly wasting tax dollars to mistreat his neighbors that adds to the tragedy of the setting. The word mallninja comes to mind."
"I want to know how that cop can even see that red dot he has on that 45 [degree] mount," FubarFreak wrote.
"The gun is set up with equipment for vastly different roles, thus making it it heavy and unwieldy," ToxDoc said.
"It looks like he can't decide if he will shoot multiple people quickly from 20 yards away in the dark or one person carefully from 500 yards away in the blindingly bright sunlight," IrishCherokee wrote.
You're getting the picture. The police officer appears to be in way over his head with a weapon he is, at best, not familiar with or fully prepared to use. It's the same phenomenon at play in the image that Prettyniceguytoo linked to above, which features an NYPD officer peering through a sight on his rifle that's on backwards.
This, of course, is in keeping with what you'd expect when police departments are handed down weapons from the Pentagon, as part of a program that redistributes military arms and tech across the country for domestic use. This is, in part, what makes the militarization of police forces so scary—not just the sheer quantity and advanced nature of the arms, but the fact that the departments aren't trained to use them properly.
"A lot of new, inexperienced soldiers do that too," DBDude wrote, referring to the over-stuffed rifle. "After a while of lugging around all that weight, the unnecessary stuff gets taken off."
Other redditors disagreed that the rig was goofy, and noted that the sight was on the wrong side was probably an optical illusion. Sausagedownatrain wrote that "The reason it has a goofy set up may well be because he doesn't know what he's doing and he's shoved a few things too many on there or that is his rifle for everything... These things aren't there because he wants to have the best rifle and chance of killing as many ethnic minorities as possible. They're there to make him a better shooter so he can deal with any threats he needs to, whilst being less likely to accidentally hit something he's not meant to - ie a civilian."
The whole exchange was illuminating, and it served as an opportunity to recognize how we in the media often oversimplify gun enthusiasts' ideas. Nobody on the ever-growing thread was overly eager to defend the PD, and no one was zealously pro-gun for pro-gun's sake. They were, by and large, critical of the way they saw the weapons being deployed. A few mocked me or were skeptical of my intent, which, fair enough—it's Reddit. And of course we should take the diagnoses of anonymous commenters with a grain of salt.
But it was eye-opening nonetheless, and an important reminder that there likely were squads of police walking around Ferguson with weapons they don't know how to use—and that there will be again, next time demonstrations or protests are met with a militarized response.
This post was updated to include more viewpoints.