Political Animal


April 12, 2012 4:10 PM Unnoticed Atrocities

By Ed Kilgore

The tragedy-within-the-tragedy of the Trayvon Martin saga is that it took something like this to draw significant attention to the rapid spread of state laws—from the now-ubiquitous conceal-to-carry statutes to the various Castle Doctrine or “Stand Your Ground” laws encouraging use of guns in non-life-threatening situations—aimed at destroying the monopoly of law enforcement officers over the legitimate use of deadly force.

The trend certainly wasn’t getting much attention earlier. The New York Times’ Erica Goode has an instructive article today on the adoption of a modified “Castle Doctrine” law just this last December in Wisconsin, a state that emphatically has been under a great deal of scrutiny lately.

When the bill (actually, a more restrictive bill than the version ultimately enacted) was under consideration, the people you’d usually consider criminal justice experts certainly didn’t like it:

Gregory O’Meara, speaking for the Wisconsin Bar Association’s criminal division, said that the division’s judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers unanimously opposed the bill as unnecessary and potentially problematic. Wisconsin’s existing law, he said, was already stronger than most states, placing the burden of proof on the prosecution to show that a person was not acting in self-defense.

None of that mattered. The bill was backed by the usual NRA/ALEC alliance, and sailed through to Scott Walker’s desk as one of those unanticipated byproducts of a successful GOP election year. At a public hearing on the bill, the expert testimony didn’t come close to outweighing the views of characters like this:

Jeff Nass, president of WI-FORCE, a Wisconsin gun rights group that works with the N.R.A., and who carries a Glock 20 semiautomatic handgun at all times — “It’s a large pistol, but I’m a large person,” he said — testified in favor of the bill.
Prosecutors and law professors, Mr. Nass said in a phone interview, “can sit back and analyze in the safety of their chambers what you did and if you did the right thing, but if I kick down your door in the middle of the night, are you going to be worried about it?”

In my limited experience, your average prosecutor is a bit more zealous about the righteous punishment of bad guys than your average gun nut. But they were outgunned in Wisconsin and many other states.

The Martin/Zimmerman case may or may not lead to a reconsideration of such laws. But it’s a reminder that in state capitals all over the country, where struggling newspapers typically provide cursory coverage of legislators and their antics, bad laws are enacted daily if they are backed by the right people. As a prophylactic measure, it’s probably a good idea for public-spirited citizens to ensure that anything out of the ALEC playbook gets some extra attention. Ill-considered laws affecting life and limb are atrocities just as much as the tragedies they enable.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • boatboy_srq on April 12, 2012 4:28 PM:

    Reichwing cycle:

    1) State repeatedly: Our government is ineffective. Our courts are overrun; our judges too interested in "special interests" to make decisions based in law and Teh Konstitooshun; our cops are too busy pigging out on donuts to enforce the law.
    2) When in office, shred any budget item except tax breaks (usually for donors/cronies) and the occasional bump for [private/privatized] corrections.
    3) Following #2, lay off substantial portions of police and other departments and squeeze compensation for the ones who remain. Call this "union busting" and "balancing the budget."
    4) Complain loudly when there aren't enough cops on the beat to answer THEIR 911 calls. Blame the police for being "unresponsive" and "unable to do their jobs."
    5) Hire private security to fill gaps. Cancel the contract the moment it becomes public that private security costs more than hiring more police officers. Use the costs of these contracts to justify keeping PDs small.
    6) Agitate for gun rights for the citizenry, because "there aren't enough cops", "violent crime is on the rise" and "the courts can't help us."
    7) Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on April 12, 2012 4:33 PM:

    You just have to wonder what lead to this mindset? To many westerns when all us boomers were growing up?To many Dirty harry type movies? To many Crime dramas and cop shows where Blam, Blam, Blam, was always the solution.
    I just wonder when all these people stopped valuing human life.
    Mr Zimmerman found out . Instead of asking "Excuse me sir I'm with neighborhood watch and I don't recognize you can you tell me who you are visiting " it was all about playing tough guy . You can't take bake a gunshot and say I'm sorry.

  • kevo on April 12, 2012 4:52 PM:

    It has taken a bit of time, but we are facing a Herculean effort to return us to our past!

    In early 1933, Americans were met with confidence and competence when they tuned into FDR's radio address and learned we have nothing to fear but fear itself! We then began a very arduous task of raising our nation out of the depts of the Great Depression through the New Deal, and our beloved brethren in the Republican party have been trying to kill off the tenets of the New Deal for the past 70 years.

    Now, just a component of such an effort to harness Randian socio-economic forces against civil society, battle popular policies of collectivism (medicare/social security) and halt any national movement forward as E pluribus unum is the promotion of "kill your problems" legislation that takes yet another lesson learned from our past and trashes it with canards of fantastic scenarios of what may happen to somebody sometime in some location during some sort of uncertainty without offering a real set of actual consequences for such flawed legislation!

    And we seemingly have the NRA and ALEC to thank for yet another senseless murder in the State of Florida! -Kevo

    Yeah, I get it, stand your ground and kill any perceived threat real of imagine even if you have to get out of your car and chase it down so you can put a bullet in it! -Kevo

  • meander on April 12, 2012 5:28 PM:

    Perhaps the Washington Monthly bloggers could help us follow state politics by frequently highlighting lesser-known news sources and blogs that do great work covering state capitols. There must be some enterprising people in various states that follow the goings-on in the state house, monitoring what bills are up for consideration. But they probably need some more publicity, something this blog could help out with.

  • Ron Byers on April 12, 2012 5:45 PM:

    Nearly every state has a group of bloggers struggling to report on state legislative antics. In Missouri it is Show Me Progress. Sadly our national bloggers, under pressure to turn out 11 posts a day, each and every day, all run the same traps. None of them do much to reach out to the states. This is particularly sad in the case of the Washington Monthly, where a very good state blogger "Blue Girl" works as a Mod. Maybe Paul could spend a little time looking for interesting state bloggers and feature them one day each weekend. I would like to know what is going on in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Colorado. By the way many of the state bloggers are professional journalists who have lost their jobs as local newspapers fold.

    The best early reporting on Sarah Palin came from a local Alaska blogger. I bet a little effort and we could all have our minds blown. There is life outside the beltway.

  • Doug on April 12, 2012 7:39 PM:

    From public testimony for the WI law:
    "Jeff Nass...who carries a Glock 20 semi-automatic handgun at all times - 'It's a large pistol, but I'm a large person.'"
    Apparently not large enough where it really counts, eh Jeff?

    "...but if I kick down your door in the middle of the night, are you going to be worried about." Jeff Nass also from public testimony.
    Odds are, if anyone kicks down you door, it's going to be either the police or DEA agents. Do you really want to start a fire-fight with THEM?

  • Douglas6 on April 13, 2012 2:52 AM:

    Zimmerman's defense is not based on the stand-your-ground law in any way. His defense is pure, old fashioned self-defense: he claims that Martin hit him first, knocked him down, broke his nose, jumped on top and started banging his head into the sidewalk. Stand-your-ground applies when the shooter might have been able to retreat but chooses to shoot instead. It's pretty obviously inapplicable to Zimmerman, since he claims he was lying on the ground with no way to retreat. Of course, the jury might decide Zimmerman is lying; the prosecutor seems to think so, based on the affidavit she filed. But again, none of that has anything to do with stand-your-ground.

  • Ron Byers on April 13, 2012 4:08 AM:

    Absent a special statute like stand your ground self defense is generally not extended to an aggressor. There is little question who the aggressor was in this case. The police have the 911 tapes. Looking at the track record of the States Attorney, I think Mr. Zimmmerman needs to think about copping a plea to manslaughter.

    More important than George Zimmerman the local police chief needs to be permanently fired. He isn't fit to be a crossing guard.

  • rea on April 13, 2012 6:53 AM:

    . . . if I kick down your door in the middle of the night . . .

    Of course, that's exactly the situation in which the common law, dating back to the Middle Ages, gives you the right to stand your ground without retreating. The issue is whether to extend this "no retreat" law to every other conceivable situation. "It's better to kill someone than to lose face by backing down" is not a sane principle on which to organize a society.

  • nic MacPlato on April 13, 2012 7:10 AM:

    Just follow the money.

    If I manufacture guns, ammo, clips, etc and I want growth I gotta do two things;
    1) Get new customers and
    2) Get more business from my current customers

    I don't need to go into details for you to connect the dots here. I will say that the NRA has become another astroturf org for the arms industry.

    And I'm not anti-gun. I could fire a 45 auto at 7yrs old. Also, if anyone has ever travelled to a third world country where there was no right to own or bear arms - can you say dictator - will understand the precious value of our second amendment. That value is deminished however when it is owned by someone whose first priority is to profit from 30 round ammo clips.

  • nic MacPlato on April 13, 2012 7:13 AM:

    ps. and the political pimps and whores who cater to them

  • biggerbox on April 13, 2012 10:14 AM:

    Curiously, though I've never owned a gun, nor carried one around with me at all times, no one has ever kicked my door in. Perhaps this is related to my consistently living in communities where I and my neighbors pay taxes to support police, schools, mental health systems and all the other things that make for a healthy social fabric, and I vote for policies that try to limit financial inequity, and address drug abuse, and poverty.

    In addition to which, I know that, in the unlikely event that a "big guy" with a Glock were to kick in my door in the middle of the night, existing legal principle dating back centuries would already protect me if I killed him.

    (Some people should never have been allowed to see the Dirty Harry movies.)

  • Shivas on April 13, 2012 4:11 PM:

    America doesn't have more than its share of sociopaths than other countries, the big difference is that in America sociopaths are the ones running the country.