Why the GOP-backed Indiana Gun Law Is a Terrible Idea

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass – a idiot.  If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”

– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist.

If Dickens were alive and writing today, he might have a character express a similar opinion of a law recently enacted in the otherwise sensible state of Indiana. The law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, authorizes citizens to use force against “public servants” (read police officers) whom they reasonably believe to be entering their home illegally.

This law is an ass, for reasons I’ll explain.

Some years ago I was the lead investigator on a case that attracted our attention to a particular apartment in a public housing project.  We were thorough in our investigation, which included surveillance and other measures to ensure we were focused on the right suspect at the right apartment.  I wrote a search warrant which was approved by a judge, and on the appointed day my colleagues and I prepared to serve it.

We were assisted in the matter by employees of the Los Angeles Housing Authority, which manages the city’s public housing complexes.  I was supplied with a map of the complex in question, which indicated that the targeted apartment was actually two smaller units that had been combined into one larger one by means of removing a wall.  During our surveillance, the suspect in the case was seen entering and leaving both sets of front and rear doors, proving, to our satisfaction and to the judge, that he lived there.

We selected one of the rear doors to the apartment as the place to make our entry as it afforded us the safest approach from the nearby parking lot.  The suspect had been seen in the apartment only minutes before, so when we received no answer to our knock on the door and our announcement that we were police officers with a search warrant, we forced open the door and ran inside.

Immediately upon entering I could see something was amiss.  The wall that had once separated the two apartments had been reinstalled: the two apartments that had been converted into one had been divided back into two.  And we were in the wrong one.

Well, there was little time to stand around and ponder where we had gone wrong.  We proceeded through the apartment from the back door to the front, exited, then repeated our knock-and-notice routine at the front of the apartment next door.  In the end, the suspect we were after was arrested and the evidence we sought was seized.  The suspect pleaded guilty, but not before some interesting court hearings at which was discussed the unconventional nature of the search warrant service.

In police work, as in all human endeavors, mistakes happen.  Today in Indiana, officers making a similar mistake might find themselves in a gunfight with the occupants of a home they have mistakenly though lawfully entered.  And under the terms of this new law, those occupants might kill a police officer and yet be vindicated in court.  If they survive the encounter, that is.

I’m always wary of claims that this or that new law or what have you could get someone killed, but in this instance I see it as only a matter of time.  And it won’t necessarily be a police officer who is killed but rather some innocent citizen whom the law is intended to protect.  According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the law allows the use of force to “protect the person or a third person from what the person reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful force.”  The trouble is, in the heat of such a moment, will anyone be able to make a distinction between police actions that are unlawful and those that are merely mistaken?

Incredibly (or perhaps not), the National Rifle Association lobbied for the law, arguing it was needed as a response to an Indiana Supreme Court ruling that held that a citizen had no right to resist an unlawful entry by police officers.  That case arose from the arrest of a man who assaulted officers who had responded to a domestic-violence call.  The bill’s author, Republican state Senator R. Michael Young, says there have been no cases in which suspects have shot police officers and then claimed justification under the new law.

No, not yet.

So now suppose Detective Jones of the Terre Haute Police Department finds himself on the hunt for some wanted and dangerous fugitive.  And further suppose that Detective Jones receives information that places this fugitive at a certain residence.  What will now happen if Detective Jones, despite his best intentions and all the careful planning one can hope to accomplish, barges into the wrong door in search of this fugitive?  The homeowner, innocent of any crime and understandably startled, believes Detective Jones and his colleagues have entered unlawfully and arms himself so as to repel the invasion.

The police officers have mentally prepared themselves for a violent confrontation with the wanted fugitive whom they believe to be inside, so when the homeowner brandishes a weapon there is little time for calm discussion and admonishments along the lines of “Say now, gentlemen, don’t you think you’ve made some mistake here?”  Someone is going to get shot, maybe a police officer, but almost certainly the innocent homeowner.

No one ever really wins a fight with the police, at least not for long.  Even if our innocent homeowner manages to shoot a police officer or two and forces the others to retreat, it will only be a matter of time before the police muster additional firepower and resume their efforts, but now with even greater zeal.  When a police officer has been shot, his colleagues are unlikely to be deterred by having it pointed out that they are at the wrong house.  “Oh, you’re looking for 345 Lilac Circle?  I’m afraid this is 347.  Sorry about your friend there.  Hope he’s up and around soon!”

The new law is truly an ass.  Those responsible for it should realize it and take corrective action before something terrible happens.  If they don’t, how awful will be the experience that opens their eyes?

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