L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 300, December 12, 2004
Bill of Rights Day December 15
Hunting for Answers
Special to TLE
Every year, the residents of any number of states enjoy hunting seasons on various wild game. One of the most popular prey in North America is the white-tailed deer. Hunting is a sport enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, the vast majority of whom take their hobby very seriously and who act with the responsibility necessary for success and safe enjoyment of their hunts. Although there are a few injuries and fatalities annually, the rates are quite low given the vast numbers of those who go hunting every year. There were just 93 fatalities in all of North America in 1998, a third of which were self-inflicted, according to Hunting Accident Statistics for Canada, the United States, and Mexico as compiled by the International Hunting Education Association. (For contrast, consider that an average of 37 skiers or snow boarders die annually in the United States, or that an average of 207 people per year die in ATV mishaps in America, neither sport of which involves "deadly weapons.")
Of course, even one death is too many. But in fairness, most hunting accidents are frankly caused largely by the stupidity of the shooter, the victim, or both. Victims all too frequently turn out to have failed to wear bright orange or another identifying color separating their movements from the movement of legitimate game, or wander without thought or warning into their partner's field of fire. An appalling number of victims are shot solely because they, or another shooter, are handling their firearms irresponsibly. Statistics from the 2002 hunting season in Wisconsin are conclusive in that regard.
But on this year's opening weekend for gun deer hunting season in Wisconsin, the unthinkable happened: one hunter deliberately shot and killed several other hunters. And that has, if you'll pardon the pun, given real ammo for the first time to gun control groups which have not been able to adequately counter the notion that Americans love their firearms because Americans love to hunt (perhaps even more of us appreciate the ability to defend ourselves as well, but hunters have truly stood up for their Second Amendment rights steadfastly, consistently, and in large numbers, and they deserve the credit for having done so).
There are differences in the testimony as to what happened in the woods on November 21, but all agree on a few of the salient details:
Chang Vang, a 36 year-old Hmong man from St. Paul, Minnesota was caught in a deer stand on private property near Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The property owner and another hunter told him to leave. Vang says he denied having seen any "no trespassing" signs, but that he climbed down and began to walk away. At that point, one of the shooting victims who survived says that Vang whirled around and started shooting; Vang claims one of the hunters shot at him before he returned fire. He also maintains that he shot the men (and one woman) because they called him racist names (something which has been uniformly called improbable by those who knew the victims). There can be no dispute, however, that in the end five people lay dead and three were wounded; one of the wounded later died of his injuries. Vang, meanwhile, is being held on a $2.5 million bond on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
Whatever Vang's story as to his motivations, other facts from Vang's perspective remain consistent with testimony from a victim (Vang has waived his right to an attorney and has, say police, been cooperative with their investigations).Vang acknowledges that he reversed his orange jacket to camouflage, that he reloaded his rifle, and that he actively chased the scattering men even as they begged for help (he shot one running man in the back). He also told authorities that he returned to the center of carnage, saw one man still standing, and said, "You're not dead yet?" and shot at him again (an article in The Electric Newspaper, an Asian publication, has these and other details). An account of the incident released by the authorities makes no mention of any of the hunters firing first, but does report Vang's claims he was lost and unaware he was on private property.
There have, say some local hunters, been problems with Hmong (a group of people originally from Laos) immigrants in the past. The Hmong, the hunters say, refuse to recognize private property. Others suggest that some of such hunters have a difficult time reading the maps that show public lands vs. private property. One Rice Lake, Wisconsin local says that "they let all these foreigners in here, and they walk all over everybody's property." Now that may or may not be true, but Chang Vang has lived in the United States for 24 years, and according to police, speaks excellent English. If he doesn't recognize private property, that's not cultural ignorance but a deliberate refusal to learn or to recognize the laws of his adopted country. Meanwhile, Hmong leaders are quoted as having "condemned the shootings and offered condolences to the victims' families," saying that "What happened in Wisconsin is in no way representative of the Hmong people."
While families grieve in Wisconsin, and Hmong immigrants throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin worry about repercussions, the Brady Campaign has been quick to ask if, with the six deaths, the NRA will "tell the truth about military-style assault weapons." Even while admitting that the SKS rifle purportedly used in the killings wasn't included in the now defunct Assault Weapons Ban, the Brady Campaign says it should be banned for civilian use. It bolsters its argument with a statement from the National Shooting Sports Foundation indicating that "this is not a gun you go deer hunting with."
That's correct to a point in that it may not be a preferred weapon. But other hunting groups suggest that many hunters use the SKS, and the size of the round fired is just about the same as the preferred caliber for deer hunting (though the cartridge itself is smaller). Even more importantly, since when is a "legitimate" hunting use the dividing line between a firearm protected by the Second Amendment and one that's not?
Meanwhile, the Violence Policy Center says that the incident in Wisconsin proves that there's the need for an assault weapons ban as well as offering definitive proof that even "armed hunters [were] no match for [an] SKS assault rifle." Of course, that contention conveniently ignores the fact the SKS wasn't part of the previous Assault Weapons Ban, and it fails utterly to acknowledge that only one of the eight hunters on the scene was armed and that he was the first to be shot, effectively eliminating any chance he had for self defense.
The inevitable calls for more laws to protect against this kind of thing are no surprise. But the fact that existing laws were ignored in this case is something no one is talking about, perhaps because it would definitively show just now worthless such laws are. Perhaps the single most important fact to point that out is found in the idea that Chang Vang had a firearm at all. After the shootings and the subsequent arrest, police say that Chang Vang was no stranger to them. In fact, they'd been called for at least two domestic violence calls to his home within the past 18 months. And three years ago, Vang was arrested for felony domestic assault after his wife claimed he'd threatened her with a handgun. And yet a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department said, "We have nothing in our records that would ever indicate he was capable of the level of violence we saw in northwestern Wisconsin." Only by ignoring the blatantly obvious can the police claim they were clueless that Vang had a tendency toward deadly violence. But just as Vang ignored the law, the police ignored Vang. He was let out of jail after that felony arrest because his wife refused to file charges.
Since so many victims of domestic violence refuse to file charges against their abuser (some reports indicate that as many as 90% may decline to do so), many states have adopted the position that the police will file the charges on behalf of the victim. In New Jersey, for example, police are required to do so if a weapon was involved in the altercation; California cops must make an arrest if there's any visible sign of injury, and the filing of charges is then solely up to prosecutors. If any laws need reformation, then perhaps Minnesota should consider whether or not it needs laws like those in New Jersey or California (I was unable to find any such provision currently on the books in Minnesota, and in fact could only locate references for victims who wished to file charges themselves).
Of course, no matter what laws are considered or passed as a result of the deaths in Wisconsin, the effectiveness of such laws is predicated solely on whether or not a would-be criminal chooses to obey them. It must be noted that there are laws against abusing your wife, yet Chang Vang was suspected of doing so at least three times, one of them with the clear threat of extreme violence. There are laws against trespassing, yet Chang Vang didn't take the initiative to ensure he didn't do so. (Did he have a map? Was he capable of following it? Could he read a compass? If not, why was he irresponsible enough to be in unfamiliar terrorist?) There are laws against using deadly force in circumstances where your life isn't threatened, and if somebody did call him names, surely none of us would suggest that offensiveness is worthy of death. Even if we assume that Vang was fired on first, why did he continue to track down and kill without mercy unarmed hunters trying only to run away, and after shooting the only armed man among them?
The bottom line is that whether or not Chang Vang legally owned a firearm or what kind of gun it was is immaterial. Had his gun been illegal, a man inclined to disregard other laws will almost certainly ignore just one more. The reality is that the tragic circumstances in Wisconsin have nothing to do with laws, guns or ethnicity, and everything to do with a man who apparently methodically and without legitimate justification murdered other human beings in cold blood. That kind of man can't be stopped by anything so petty as a statute. The threat he represents can, however, be eliminated via the justice system.
In fact, there's only one change in the laws of the state of Wisconsin I'd personally support in the aftermath of Vang's actions. That's the restoration of the death penalty there (it was abolished in 1853), preferably via firing squad.