Unnoticed Atrocities

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.