From Progressive Unionism to Progress on Gun Rights?

Imagine this: You are a Republican state legislator in Wisconsin. You’ve already received multiple death threats, threats the police are taking very seriously. But they don’t have sufficient manpower to serve as bodyguards. They know where you live, and that might -- might -- reduce their response time. It’s 2 PM and two busloads of protestors pull up in front of your home, disgorging 150 angry, crude, and thuggish “protestors.” Most are wearing union colors and carrying identical, professionally painted signs. Others carry signs calling for your death. Your wife and small children are terrified. You call 911 and make sure your doors are locked. They’re swarming your home, trampling your lawn and greenery, and the first brick comes through a window just after you hang up. More follow. Kicks began to strike your back door, the door inside your fenced yard, out of sight of the street and media cameras. Suddenly, the door splinters and three burly men rush in. They are not carrying signs and they are not smiling. What do you do?

Have you ever heard of Castle Rock v. Gonzales? It’s a Supreme Court case that, like so many Supreme Court decisions, directly affects the lives of every American, yet like so many Supreme Court decisions, few know anything about it.

Jessica Gonzales of Castle Rock, Colorado, obtained a permanent restraining order against her estranged husband, but on June 22, 1999, at about 5:15 PM, in violation of that order, he took his three daughters from their mother’s yard without her knowledge. Jessica called the Castle Rock Police at 7:30, 8:30, and 10:10 PM, and went to the police station in person at 12:40 AM on the 23rd. By early evening of the previous night, Jessica had received a call from her estranged husband who confirmed that he had the girls. She told the police, begged them, and despite her repeated pleas, the Castle Rock Police did nothing.

At about 3:20 AM, Gonzales attacked the Castle Rock police station, firing a handgun he purchased earlier. He was shot and killed by the police, who soon found his three daughters, dead, in his vehicle. Gonzales had murdered them earlier.

Jessica filed suit, and a federal district court dismissed her case. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned part of the district court’s dismissal, allowing the case to continue on a procedural due process claim. The Supreme Court, in 2002, overturned the Tenth Circuit and upheld the district court’s dismissal of the case. Jessica could not sue the Castle Rock Police Department or its officers for failing to protect her daughters. This may sound cruel or absurd, but it is rational; it adheres to the Constitution, American values, and long-standing precedence; and it is quite necessary. If police officers could be sued for failing to protect a citizen, what city could afford a police force? Who would become a police officer knowing financial ruin awaited them at any minute for the acts of criminals beyond their knowledge and control?

There are a number of important lessons in this case. Restraining or protection orders have limited value. Such orders commonly allow the police to immediately arrest the suspect if he is within, say, 100’ of the victim (not normally, in and of itself, a crime). This was the case with Gonzales’ restraining order, but unless the police happen to be present when an order is violated, or can immediately find and arrest the suspect, this too is of limited value. Such orders should not be dismissed out of hand as useless, but as is usual with the criminal law, violators may be arrested only after they commit a crime, not before. This too, if we wish to live in a constitutional republic, is also quite necessary.

But the most important lesson is that while the police have a duty to suppress and investigate crime for the public in general, they cannot be held liable for failing to protect individual citizens. Police lore is full of true stories of victims who called 911, only to have their calls for help misplaced, disregarded, or simply ignored. In some cities, at some times, 911 calls are put on hold or never answered, so great is the emergency call volume. Sometimes, due to mistakes, negligence or apathy, victims are raped, maimed, even killed, yet the police have no duty to protect those individuals. The police know well a simple, yet true, aphorism: when seconds count, the police are only minutes away, if, that is, they actually know about the emergency.

Another lesson is really quite simple and logical -- there simply aren’t enough police officers to protect everyone. How many officers are patrolling in your community at this instant, ready to answer your personal call for help? You’d be amazed at how small the number actually is. Police officers just love catching really bad guys in the act and saving the innocent. The truth is that seldom happens. Life isn’t like the movies. Police agencies are chronically understaffed everywhere. They organize their shifts so that most officers are working when they’re likely to be needed, which are the night shifts, Thursday through Saturday. During the day particularly, or at other times, a surprisingly small number of officers are on the streets, and if a few are sick, in court, or on vacation the numbers are smaller still.

Imagine: Someone is breaking down your back door at 3 AM. They are probably not stopping by for tea. How long will it take you to call 911, and, if the dispatcher answers immediately, give them the information they need to respond? Ten seconds? Twenty? A minute is more like it. How long will it take the nearest officer to drive from where they are to your home? That depends on where he is. Bet on no less than five minutes, and likely twice as long, even more. When the officer arrives, how long will it take him to become oriented, understand exactly what he needs to do and where he needs to go -- if he doesn’t wait for his backup to arrive (if backup is available)? A minute? Three? Bet on five. Are you still alive?

Now hark back to the Republican state legislator in Wisconsin. Wisconsin and Illinois are the two states that have no legal form of concealed carry. Even with a legislature controlled by Democrats, several attempts were made in Wisconsin to pass concealed carry, but the bills were vetoed by Democrat Jim Doyle. With the legislature now in Republican hands, and with Republican Scott Walker in the governor’s office, it seemed that concealed carry would be likely to soon become law in Wisconsin. Thanks to Democrats and their union allies, not only is concealed carry a certainty, but an effective Castle Doctrine law is now virtually certain as well. Castle Doctrine laws establish that as long as you have a legal right to be where you are -- in your car, your home, or any other place -- you need not retreat if attacked. Your home, for instance, as the saying goes, is your castle. You can stand your ground and protect yourself and your family and the law will presume that you were right in so doing. They also specify that anyone breaking into your home is presumed to be there to cause you harm and you may, again, defend yourself, even using deadly force. They also commonly prohibit criminal attackers and their survivors from suing their victims.

Enter Wisconsin State Representative Michelle Litjens (R). After passing the House version of the Senate bill that fourteen Wisconsin senators have fled to Illinois to avoid passing, Rep. Gordon Hintz (D), on the floor of the Wisconsin House, angrily told her that she was “f***ing dead.” Hintz belatedly apologized for the remark, but Litjens was very much intimidated. Or consider Wisconsin Senator Glenn Grothman, who found himself pursued and surrounded by a hostile crowd outside the locked Capitol building. Only the intervention of Democrat State Representative Brett Hulsey, who tried to calm the crowd and eventually enlisted the help of firefighters, eventually saw Hulsey safely into the building. Grothman played down the incident, saying that he thought he could have walked away, but most viewing video of the incident would not be likely to hold that view. Grothman looked very much like a man who had no doubt that he was in serious trouble, and Rep. Hulsey obviously felt that way at the time.

Is it clear why Wisconsin legislators -- and citizens who have been paying attention -- might have a renewed or newly discovered appreciation for the urgency of passing concealed carry and the Castle Doctrine? Anti-gun forces have claimed that such laws allow the legally sanctioned wholesale slaughter of criminals and innocents alike, but as with their claims of inevitable carnage in the streets in states with shall-issue concealed carry laws, none of this has come to pass in states with both laws.

For those who appreciate irony, this situation is bathed in it. Those Democrats who could depend on a Democrat governor to keep Wisconsin citizens disarmed are now, through their crude and desperate attempts to subvert democracy and the will of the people, virtually guaranteeing what they have fought so long and hard to prevent. Nothing focuses one’s attention on the laws necessary for mere survival than having to worry about mere survival, particularly at the hands of the allies of your supposed legislative colleagues. Comity may well be in short supply in the Wisconsin legislature for some time to come. I would imagine that Republican legislators will take a dim view of their “colleagues” whose policies and actions caused their lives and the lives of their families to be threatened. Many Democrats are doubtless more or less blameless, and will also see the potential for harm -- to Wisconsin, themselves, and their families -- that is now being made so clear to Republicans, courtesy of imported union “activists” and their supporters in the public schools, in the legislature and in local public employees' unions.

It is not only threats that will make this happy turn of events a certainty. The budget crunch will also have a sobering effect. Remember how few officers are on the street in your community? Here are a few facts to keep in mind: The majority of the budget of any law enforcement agency is spent in salaries. On average, a year will pass before a newly hired police recruit will be able to function alone on the street. During that year of training, he will be earning a salary and benefits, but providing no direct police services. In order to put one police officer on the street 24/7, 365 days a year, more than four officers must be hired and trained. That means there must be three officers working eight-hour shifts, and the fourth (or more) to cover for vacations, illness, training, court time, and a variety of other things that will take any officer away from the street. Lay off officers, and the fewer remaining officers will have to work additional shifts, earning overtime that your city can’t afford, greatly lengthening call response times and making themselves more prone to illness, injuries and mistakes. Reduce the number of officers too much, and the response time to your 911 call might be measured in hours rather than minutes.

And who is more aware of budgetary issues than Wisconsin’s legislators, the same legislators who are now being mortally threatened and harassed for the offense of trying to do their jobs? Wisconsin may soon become the model for the dilution of union power and membership and the restoration of fiscal sanity, but it will also almost certainly become the model for common-sense gun laws.