Arm East Palo Alto
By Alec Rawls © 1997/1998. (1100 words) Published in The Stanford Review, 10/21/97.

Most Stanford students occasionally participate in community service, which offers a chance to do good while buffing up the résumé. East Palo Alto, with the greatest local density of needy people, receives a hefty share of student attention. It would receive even more, if its problems were not so daunting and dangerous. Five years ago, EPA had the highest murder rate in the nation. This year crime is surging again. There is no need to be daunted, though, if do gooders will just adhere to the cardinal rule of charity.

Everyone who pursues good works is confronted with the tension between giving help and creating dependency. The solution, as far as it is possible, is to help people to help themselves. Anyone who really cares about the downtrodden should want to see this principle applied to East Palo Alto's worst problem: its high rate of crime.

Our neighbors to the east are eager to help themselves -- to defend themselves and each other against crime. The scandal is that they are systematically deprived, by their own police department, of the means to defend themselves. In the twelve years of its existance, the East Palo Alto Police Department has only issued one gun permit. The state arrogates to the police the power to determine who may go armed, and EPA Police Chief Wesley Bowling denies this permission to all but his own troops. The right of the people to keep arms is protected, but the right of the people to bear arms is utterly curtailed. Before they step out of their houses, each citizen must completely disarm, or risk substantial time in jail.

Finally, a place where Stanford students can exercise their desire to fight injustice! It is a scenario straight out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. A power-grabbing lawman, despising the U.S. Constitution, revels in monopolizing the power of arms. By disarming the people, he makes them dependent on him. Their vulnerability causes his "business" to boom with the highest crime rate in the nation. His fiefdom -- his little army -- grows off the misery his contempt inflicts.

The same dynamic occurs throughout the bay area, where all police chiefs and county sheriffs systematically deny all gun carry permit applications. (In fourteen years on the job, Palo Alto police chief Cris Durkin has never issued a gun permit to a civilian.) Comprehensive statistical studies reveal very clearly that when law abiding people (or more precisely, those with no record of criminal behavior) are systematically disarmed, violent crime increases sharply (see Lott and Mustard, Journal of Legal Studies, January 97). This should not surprise anyone. Criminals are constantly assessing risk and return. When they can judge possible prey to be defenseless, that is when they attack.

This resulting elevation of crime affects the entire Bay Area. It is only more extreme in EPA because of EPA's peculiar history. Sick of being patted down by a white San Mateo County police force, the mostly black population of East Palo Alto voted in 1983 to incorporate, largely so that it could police itself. It was a rash act of racial pride. EPA has never had the tax base to afford the increased level of policing that a disarmed community requires. For a given size police force, Palo Alto's disarmament necessarily increases its crime rate, but Palo Alto can afford enough police to restore enough deterrence to keep the lid from blowing off. East Palo Alto cannot.

Still, EPA can have its cake and eat it too -- it can have its racial pride, and successfully police itself -- if it will only stop depriving the law abiding citizens of their constitutional right to bear arms. East Palo Alto could succeed with its small police force better than Palo Alto succeeds with its huge one. In Palo Alto, help is five minutes away. In an EPA where gun rights were protected, help would lie within every third house and car, within earshot, within arm's reach. Combined with the very severe penalties that already exist for criminals who use or possess guns, the criminals would no longer have the advantage, but would be at a huge disadvantage vis a vis their intended victims. The biggest negative consequence, if EPA's sheep grew teeth, is that the wolves would start visiting the sheep on this side of the freeway. But there would be a silver lining even to that, as Palo Alto might be forced to start recognizing gun rights too.

How could Stanford Students help? Just as northern liberals toured the deep south on voter registration drives to win the battle for civil rights, Stanford students could canvass EPA, helping residents to apply for Concealed Carry Weapons (CCW) permits. EPA police chief Bowling would then face a choice. He could grant the permits, or face a class action suit of the type that was recently successful in southern California where blanket rejections of gun permits was found to exceed a police chief's discretionary power, which allows permits to be denied to applicants who lack "good moral character" or "good reason" to be armed. Santa Clara County Sheriff Gillingham asserts that self-defense is not a good reason. We will wait and see what the courts say about that. But when the police do not answer calls, and tell local landlords to hire their own security guards if they want protection, as the East Palo Alto police have done (see S.J. Mercury News, 7/20/97, p1A), there is no option but self-defense.

This is a genuine civil rights issue (unlike affirmative action, which perverts civil rights by embracing racial discrimination). It is the second amendment, which many many people hold far dearer than even their right to vote. The chance that one's vote will determine an election is vanishingly small, and even then, the effect of this outcome on one's own concerns is typically very indirect. In contrast, self-defense is the ultimate of personal concerns, and in a high crime neighborhood, a constantly present concern.

The local chapter of the NRA would pitch in, and The Second Amendment Foundation would help with a class action law suit if it came to that. Anyone who wants to make a go of it, write to me at and I'll put everyone in touch, plus I will canvass EPA myself. What do you say Ujamma? Have you got the fire to take on a genuine civil rights battle?

(Alexander Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics.)


Next in this series: Reframing our System of Liberty (a series of five articles)

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