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Guns, violence and vigilantes

When people — and in many states, the laws — allow armed people to chase others they suspect might have committed theft, and if they get scared about their safety in the ensuing struggle, and kill the person they are chasing, we have normalized lynching.

A woman holds a sign outside the Glynn County Courthouse after the jury reached a guilty verdict in the trial of William "Roddie" Bryan, Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, charged with the February 2020 death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.
A woman holds a sign outside the Glynn County Courthouse after the jury reached a guilty verdict in the trial of William "Roddie" Bryan, Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, charged with the February 2020 death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.
REUTERS/Marco Bello

The recent conviction of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery is welcome news; it has been described as “justice being served.” The convictions were appropriate for the three white men who followed a young Black jogger in their cars, confronted him and then shot him. But it cannot bring back Ahmaud Arbery. Convictions alone cannot be seen as justice.

When people — and in many states, the laws — allow armed people to chase others they suspect might have committed theft, and if they get scared about their safety in the ensuing struggle, and kill the person they are chasing, we have normalized lynching.

The killers in the Arbery case, like the killer of Trayvon Martin in 2012, claimed that they were authorized by the law to make what they considered a citizen’s arrest. In both cases, when the young Black men being hunted down, undoubtedly frightened, resisted their assault, the killers said that they became frightened and needed to shoot as a matter of self-defense. The people who provoked the incidents claimed self-defense.

Although the courts convicted the killers in the Arbery case, our laws are encouraging vigilantism. Multiple states have enacted “stand your ground” laws backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), in which a person can shoot someone based simply on their subjective feeling that they are at risk, even if walking away and avoiding the confrontation was a reasonable alternative. In Minnesota, there are currently at least three proposed bills to adopt a “stand your ground” provision here.

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These laws give people a sense of entitlement to bring high-powered weapons to public settings, ostensibly to protect themselves or other people or property. In the recent Kenosha case, Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was acquitted, felt it was his right to bring a high-powered, semi-automatic rifle to a protest. Rittenhouse’s lawyer said that he did “nothing wrong.”

“Stand your ground” laws promote vigilante justice, and guns in the hands of racist vigilantes lead to modern-day lynchings. We need to repeal those laws and take a comprehensive look at how we regulate guns.

Practically anyone can purchase an arsenal of weaponry powerful enough to gun down dozens of victims in minutes, including semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Even people who have committed violence are often able to purchase and carry guns. The NRA has so much political clout that back in 2005, when Minnesota passed a concealed carry law, the NRA defeated my amendment that would have denied gun permits to applicants with restraining orders against them. The gun lobby persuaded legislators that even if an abuse victim obtains an order for protection, the abuser should still have the right to carry a gun. Our weak gun laws have led to an epidemic of gun violence in the U.S., with over 100 gun deaths every day — that’s about 40 homicides, 65 suicides and an accidental gun death, day after day.

After so many years in which the gun lobby dominated the political system, it is a hopeful sign that we are seeing the beginning of a national conversation about gun laws.

As we work to promote safer communities, consider how we regulate automobiles. There are lawful uses for both guns and cars, but both are deadly when misused.

State Sen. John Marty
State Sen. John Marty
With cars, we require the operator to be trained, licensed and insured. We register the vehicle, and re-register it when transferring to a new owner.

In contrast, for guns, there is no licensing, no registration and no training or insurance requirements. This enables criminals to obtain guns from a private citizen with no background check, no waiting period — no means of enforcement at all.

We don’t have a gun registration system because the gun lobby has used fear tactics to fight even modest regulation. They say, “First they’ll register your guns, then the next thing they’ll do is take ’em away.”

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Right. Just like they did with cars.

Actually, the government does take away cars, but only from people using them in a dangerous manner. In Minnesota, the courts can seize the cars of repeat drunken-driving offenders. It is not a radical thought to question whether we should do the same with guns. The Second Amendment’s “well-regulated militia” means well-regulated.

Here are some reasonable changes that are long overdue:

  • Licensing gun owners and registering firearms, requiring training and insurance.
  • Prohibiting people without occupational need or personal safety risks from carrying weapons, whether concealed or openly brandished, around the community
  • Putting a lifetime ban on gun ownership for people convicted of violent crimes.
  • Banning certain dangerous weaponry such as large capacity magazines.

These modest proposals do not punish responsible gun owners any more than vehicle registration punishes responsible car owners. But these proposals will help stop the arms race on our streets where gang members are more heavily armed than the police and where anyone with a temper or a minor grudge can end up murdering someone in a road rage incident.

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Regulation saves lives. Over the last 75 years, motor vehicle regulations have cut the traffic death toll by about 90 percent, based on the number of miles driven.

Regulating firearms​ would reduce fatalities too.​ The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment gives an ​individual right to bear arms in self-defense, but that is not an absolute right. The court says that reasonable restrictions may be placed on the possession of​ firearms. The National Firearms Act of 1934 effectively banned machine guns from private ownership. Since that time, the “Tommy guns” of Al Capone in the 1920s and other fully automatic machine guns have not been used in mass killings or other crimes.

It is time to enact legislation that recognizes the compelling interests of the state in​ protecting people from gun violence. People have a right not to be shot.

John Marty is a DFL senator from Roseville.