On November 21, at around 7 p.m., narcotics officers in vests that said police (but not full uniforms) served a no-knock warrant to 933 Neal Street in Northwest Atlanta. The resident, Kathryn Johnston--88 years old by some accounts, 92 years old by others--pulled a pistol on the intruders. The police fired on their assailant. When it was over, three officers were wounded and Johnston lay dead. The warrant, alleging drug activity at her address, appears to have been issued in error. And, although the FBI is investigating, the Fulton County Assistant District Attorney defended his cops: “This seems like another tragedy involving drugs.”
Actually, it seems like another tragedy involving gun policy. On July 1, a new Georgia law went into effect granting anyone who feels attacked on his or her property the “right to meet force with force, including deadly force.” Georgia Senate Bill 396 also immunizes such a shooter from prosecution and civil penalty (though not, in Johnston’s case, from return fire). It’s not unreasonable to suppose that, had this law not passed last summer, Johnston might not have fired on those strange men barging into her house, and she might be alive today.
Expect more Kathryn Johnstons. Unnoticed by most of the national press, 2006 became the year the National Rifle Association (NRA) got its way--and average citizens in almost a dozen states earned more leeway to shoot first and ask questions later than, in some circumstances, officers of the law.
Starting in 2005 in Florida, the NRA has promoted what it calls “stand your ground” laws. They claim these laws are merely the statutory formalization of a traditional concept--what they refer to as the “Castle Doctrine,” after a mellifluous passage in Book Four of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. But statutory language that has been sold to legislators as something uncontroversial--”the Castle Doctrine, in essence, simply places into law what is a fundamental right: self defense,” as an NRA newsletter puts it--is in actuality quite radical. Existing statutes and court precedents impose a “duty to retreat” in the face of a mere intruder. Genuine self-defense is legal--always has been, always will be. For over 200 years, distinguishing self-defense from vigilantism was for police, prosecutors, juries, and judges to decide.
The new laws leave it up to you and me. In Arizona’s, passed in April, a shooter “is presumed to be acting reasonably”--and their target is presumed to intend bodily harm--if the target “unlawfully or forcefully enters or entered the person’s residential structure or occupied vehicle”--or merely “is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the residential structure or occupied motor vehicle to further an unlawful activity.” An unarmed thief who enters through a front door accidentally left unlocked may end up with, as punishment, a summary execution. Notes NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, “If someone breaks into your dwelling, it’s reasonable to assume that person is in there to do you harm.”
The law is even more broad in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Oklahoma, where the same immunities apply in any place you have a legal right to be. (Perhaps they should call it the “Kingdom Doctrine.”) If innocent bystanders die during a shooting falling under the NRA’s version of the Castle Doctrine, some believe it might mean immunity from prosecution. That’s why either Damon “Red Rock” Darling, a convicted drug dealer, or Leroy “Yellow Man” Larose--both of whom, according to The Miami Herald, plan Castle Doctrine defenses once it is determined whose bullet cut down nine-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins on her front porch in Liberty City during their gunfight--could escape a murder charge or even a civil suit. (The NRA’s Arulanandam says, “Look, any law on the books will, you know--there are going to be people who are going to try to take advantage of the laws on the books.”)
The new stand-your-ground laws are so frightening because they cover shooters who simply feel at risk. In Winter Haven, Florida, Justin Boyette meant no harm when he approached Michael Brady on Brady’s lawn, unarmed, possibly to shake his hand. Brady felt menaced and shot him anyway. Brady feels deeply remorseful--but was the first person to be cleared by the Castle Doctrine defense nonetheless. But the new stand-your-ground laws provide little guidance about what happens once cases reach the courts. A state prosecutor in Kentucky, Kimberly Henderson Baird, was so baffled about how the new law applied to the case of a drug dealer beaten to death by one of his customers that she gave up and accepted a manslaughter plea (it covers “force,” not just guns). “[If] we couldn’t understand it ourselves, how are we going to get a jury to understand it?” The victim’s sister, upon learning that her brother’s killer would be eligible for parole in two months, noted Kentucky’s new law “basically says if anyone comes into your home, and if you have a grudge against them or anything, you can do this and get away with it.” She wonders whether the legislature “thought things through.”
Good question. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as soon as the 2006 legislative sessions opened, the NRA roared into action so quickly that gun-control groups were blindsided. Bills were introduced in Georgia and South Carolina on January 10; Arizona’s was first read two days later; Kansas’s the day after that; South Dakota’s was signed by February; and, by summer, ten new stand-your-ground laws were in force. Texas is scheduled to introduce its own in January 2007.
The NRA has described it as a train “chugging throughout the nation, reuniting Americans with the right to protect themselves and loved ones from danger.” Both Democrats and Republicans have been glad to grease the rails. Only one state senator voted against Kentucky’s law; Georgia’s passed the state Senate 26-1. Democratic governors signed them in Louisiana, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Some states specifically withhold immunity from those who shoot cops. Johnston’s Georgia, however, does not.
News of the Atlanta tragedy broke on November 21--a day before the forty-third birthday of the modern gun-control movement. On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was murdered with a rifle purchased by mail. A conservative Democrat, Senator Thomas Dodd, introduced a bill to outlaw the practice. Soon after, the NRA transformed itself from a hobby club for sportsman into a civil rights organization for vigilantes. One of the Dodd bill’s strongest supporters was the slain president’s brother; for that, the NRA magazine, American Rifleman, suggested Ted Kennedy was a follower of communism.
The NRA has refined its rhetoric since. “On behalf of all NRA members and gun owners in Georgia, I want to thank Governor Perdue for signing this self-defense bill,” the NRA Institute for Legislative Action’s executive director, Chris W. Cox, announced in April. “Now Georgians can defend themselves against an attacker.” Meanwhile, a ways down the food chain, Johnston, who defended herself against cops she reasonably presumed to be attackers, has become a Second Amendment martyr. “It goes without saying that the late Kathryn Johnston, a heroic 92-year-old pistol packing Atlanta resident, had every right and reason to open fire on the goons who were in the process of breaking down her front door,” reported Free Market News Network.
It seems likely that Atlanta’s finest screwed up. But, even so, cops already have a hard enough job without the NRA’s state-sanctioned shoot-first blessing bearing down on them in eleven states and counting.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, which will be published next year.