L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 339, October 2, 2005
Tenth Anniversary Edition, Part 1
In Defense of Freedom
Special to TLE
Guns are good and terrible things. Whether they are good or terrible depends on whether the hands that wield them are good or evil. Guns can, of course, be a lot of fun if they're used for target shooting or hunting. They can also beand often arelifesavers in the event of a threat. Since self-defense may be the single most basic of all the human rights, that's a whole lot of good going on! The obvious good of protecting yourself and your loved ones from harm is so integral to all of us and to society as a whole that even the drastic action of killing another human being can be excused under the law as "justifiable" homicide, or, more simply and accurately, "self-defense."
The Second Amendmentwhich guarantees Americans the right to keep and bear armsexists because the founding fathers were also concerned with our ability to defend ourselves. They, of course, worried a little less about other men than they did about the government. But their recognition of self-defense, whether or person, property, or liberty, was clear when they wrote the words, and their intent remains clear to this day (despite some lawyers and victim disarmament advocates who would have you believe otherwise).
Self-defense is instituted under the most scary and serious of circumstances, and it's imperative that we continue to have the option to exercise that right as we judge necessary. Unfortunately, that goes double for any situation where deadly force is required to defend ourselves. But to feel safe and to stay safe, it's imperative that we continue to be able to exercise our right to self defense without fear of legal repercussions. That includes being able to claim self-defense as a defense should any charges be wrongly levied against us.
The respect we all ought to have for both the option of defending ourselves and for the legal standing of self-defense is undermined when both or either are sorely misused. Rarely has it been more misused than in the case of Hmong immigrant Chai Soua Vang. Last November, Vang was confronted after trespassingintentionally or accidentallyonto private property while he was deer hunting in Wisconsin. Vang claimed the white hunters who caught him in their deer stand called him racist names and shot at him. The surviving hunters said that Vang started shooting first and that, when he was done, six men were dead.
Vang, who admitted to shooting the men, told a judge and jury that two of the six had deserved to die for calling him names. He claimed that he'd feared for his life and had fired in self defense. Prosecutors pointed out that four of the six men who died were shot in the back while they were trying to run away, and that all but one of the eight who were shot were unarmed. After a surprisingly brief trial, a jury in Wisconsin took just three hours to render guilty verdicts on first degree murder and attempted murder charges filed against Chai Soua Vang.
That the jury didn't buy Vang's claims of self-defense is a good thing, but that he used it at all is bound to have repercussions. In fact, some are already evident. Just after the jury verdicts were announced, a Hmong man being interviewed by WCCO Radio in Minneapolis suggested that other Hmong hunters would continue to enjoy their sport, but that they'd likely be even more heavily armed than before. It was his contention that doing so might discourage racism. Whether any have suffered racist comments or not, it's apparent that some seem to think deadly force is an appropriate way to combat offensive comments. Vang's earnest claims can only have contributed to that notion.
Meanwhile, there's significant legal trouble for a man who killed an intruder in what he believedand a jury agreedwas a legitimate case of self defense. After he was acquitted, Alfred Cook was sued for wrongful death by the dead man's family. His insurance company refused pay for his defense arguing that self defense was a purposeful action rather than an accident such as the insurance would legitimately cover. In the strictest sense, it's obvious that Cook was, indeed, responsible for the death of the man he shot. But if the self defense was legitimate, how could such a death be wrongful?
After an appeal of the insurance company's decision was filed, a split appellate court ruled in favor of the insurance company. The insurance company does have a valid point in its argument. The problem really lies in the failure of the civil court to recognize self defense like the criminal court does. That is a discrepancy that will likely need to be resolved in this age of litigiousness. If it's not, the exercise of self defense, while remaining entirely legitimate under the law, could potentially result in significant damages to someone who acted well within his or her moral and legal rights.
If there was ever a place where self defense was important, and where guns were a necessity to do so, it was the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Gangs stalked the streets there, looting from abandoned homes and businesses at will. Snipers took potshots at cops, rescue workers, and probably each other.
In the middle of the chaos, there were ordinary law abiding citizens. Many were homeowners who chose to ride out the storm and came through the other side largely in one piece. By virtue of high ground, they were also unscathed by the ensuing floodwaters. But when police either deserted their posts or were otherwise occupied with emergencies and rescue efforts, the real threat came from the well armed and exceedingly dangerous criminal element. Some had the very good sense to band together for mutual defense. But when others thought of arming themselves, they found it was too late: Wal-Mart was refusing to sell guns in its stores in the affected areas.
In the end, it very nearly didn't matter whether the homeowners could buy guns or not, or whether or not they'd set up their own patrols and means of ensuring their safety. On the orders of the New Orleans Superintendent of Police, authorities went door to door collecting firearms, sometimes by force. Edwin Compass was even quoted in the New York Times as saying that "only law enforcement will be allowed to have guns." Compass ignored the obvious, but political columnists didn't. One article quoted John Lott, an expert on firearms laws and gun control, as saying that the confiscations would "create more victims."
And so in the course of just a few weeks in America, we see the notion of self defense ridiculed via an absurd criminal defense. We see it counterbalanced via the misuse of the civil courts to address matters criminal courts have already decided. We see it seriously mitigated by an unwarranted but politically correct decision made by a vendor of firearms. And most heinous of all, we see it prohibited altogether by overzealous and power drunk law enforcement.
At this moment, these incidences are isolated occurrences. But each is, in its own way, a precedent-setter. There are those Hmong in Minnesota who are accusing the jury of racism in the Vang verdicts and who call the murderer himself heroicor at least tragic. The family of the man killed during a break-in may or may not win any compensation in the end, but the acceptance of the case in the courts and the refusal of an insurance carrier to consider covering any liabilities isn't heartening. While vendors have every right to decide what to sell or not to sell, making decisions to withdraw firearms from sale based solely on temporary politically correct pressure doesn't bode well for the fortitude of other businesses.
Most awful of all, there are those who actually think that New Orleans' Edward Compass had to confiscate firearms from law abiding citizens to lower the out-of-control crime in the ruined city. (An acquaintance of mine was actually incensed that I had a problem with the confiscations, saying, "Well, people were shooting at the cops. They had to do something!") And those same people who think removing citizens' only means of self defense at a time of very real threat to their lives and their property aren't going to focus on New Orleans forever. In fact, they're more likely to set their sites on somewhere just a little less dangerous, at least in the beginning. Consider that carefully the next time you're inclined to keep quiet because you don't live in New Orleans yourself!
The right to self defense isn't granted by the Second Amendment. That right existed long before the Bill of Rights was crafted, and it will exist long after the Bill of Rights is distant history. But that certainly doesn't mean the protections against government attempts to usurp or prohibit that right aren't important! And we should be warned that the usurpation is well under way.
Infringements of the Second Amendment have become so commonplace that even the egregious violations of the law that took place in New Orleans recently have been overlooked, excused, orworst of allapplauded. Manipulations of the legal system such as the attempt by Chai Vang are largely viewed as desperate today, but the government has made steady inroads in the criminalization of racist comment in recent years. How long before a deadly response might actually be deemed, if not acceptable, at least understandable? From civil suits to erstwhile "do-gooders," the right to an effective self-defense is under attack. If we don't act now to defend ourselves against these incursions, we may find ourselves largely incapable of defending ourselves against anything else.