The days of the Wild West – when any self-respecting man would shoot dead a rustler trying to steal his horse – still inspire nostalgia in both children and adults. State representatives Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) have also been struck by these fantasies of cowboys and vigilante justice and have proposed a bill deeply infused with the pioneer spirit. The legislation would free residents from the duty to retreat if attacked, allowing for immediate retaliation -with deadly force – to a real or perceived threat. Because the bill would set Michigan back by more than a century in criminal justice, it is essential that the state Legislature defeat this bill.
Although conservative lawmakers have promoted the bill as a protection of victims’ rights, they are only seeking to keep up with the Joneses in Florida. The Florida state Legislature passed a similar but broader bill that takes effect in October, allowing residents to take the law into their own hands in public spaces, as well as on private property. Even the bill’s sponsors have acknowledged that under current law, it is unlikely a crime victim would be charged for acting in self-defense. The proposed law would instead encourage a “shoot-first, think-later” behavior, inevitably increasing homicide rates.
Under the bill, there is no clear definition of what constitutes a threat, opening the door for people to use guns indiscriminately before rationally assessing the situation. When, for example, an irate homeowner finds a trespasser on his property, the use of deadly force rarely occurs. But the legislation allows any victim or potential victim of a crime to respond with disproportionate force by shooting the offending party – with no threat of prosecution. Gun use would thus become the first response to a situation, rather than the last resort.
This legislation also exposes another gray area in the criminal justice system, as juries will no longer focus on whether a person who supposedly killed in self-defense faced a legitimate threat, but on whether he merely felt threatened. This distinction is crucial, as the latter is far more subjective and opens up murder trials to a new body of one-sided testimony.
Guns are a last resort in the face of life-threatening danger, not a blanket response to any minor threat. In the wake of the Florida bill, gun-control advocates under the banners of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Million Mom March have taken up the call to arms, determined to prevent another such law from being enacted in Michigan. These groups should continue to push the state’s lawmakers to set an example for other states tempted to follow Florida’s lead by defeating this bill. Thankfully, times of vigilante justice gave way to modern law and justice decades ago, the state Legislature just has to realize it.