Listening to local and national TV news the last few weeks, you'd be excused for thinking the apocalypse already has arrived. Huge amounts of air time have been devoted here in Milwaukee on local news telecasts and on network news shows reporting various shooting incidents in Wisconsin, the nation and beyond: The Las Vegas car chase / gun battle through the heart of that city that left multiple fatalities, the Oscar Pistorius shooting incident in South Africa, shootings in Milwaukee that included a running gun battle on a busy intersection involving an alleged robber and his victim, and many more.
It was wall-to-wall guns, and only a little of the coverage covered political efforts in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, grade school murders to toughen the nation's ridiculously weak gun control laws. Still, for once, all the mayhem documented on TV news video served a purpose besides an "if it bleeds it leads" viewer ratings push.
One tacit purpose of these stories is to get citizens to focus on the problem, namely: too many guns in our society, too many of which in turn are owned by people with shady histories. And to get them to focus on the need for solutions: Rational laws such as one requiring all gun purchasers -- not just some -- to go through a background check before the purchase can be completed.
Another purpose ought to be to get people in Wisconsin and other states to reconsider the wisdom of so-called castle doctrine laws, which greatly enhance legal protections for property owners who shoot others on their premises. Wisconsin has had a castle doctrine law since 2011, thanks to the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Scott Walker. That group of lawmakers also enacted a concealed-carry law that is poorly regulated; almost anyone can get a permit to pack hidden heat; more training and testing is required to get a driver's license.
Ironically, Republicans who are so deliberately literal minded on many issues would do us all a favor if they were more literal minded about their gun laws. For example, wouldn't it be great if the term "castle doctrine" was a legal definition of what that law allowed? Then, you could only take advantage of the law if you literally lived in an actual castle -- you know, the kind with moats and drawbridges and bubbling oil pots on the ramparts.
Nice thought experiment but we'll never get Repubs to reconsider their all-guns-all-the-time stance. They think a man's home is his castle, except of course if he lives in public housing. Besides, if a court did rule that only actual castle owners could invoke "castle doctrine" after killing someone on their property, I'm sure more than a few McMansion owners in western Waukesha County and elsewhere would try to claim their spacious personal residences qualify as modern-day castles. But then, at least, they'd probably mostly just be shooting each other. So much for hiding behind gated communities.
The castle doctrine law encourages gun mayhem because it makes it far easier for a citizen to justify shooting someone on his or her private property. We've already recorded one tragedy in Slinger, where 20-year-old Bo Morrison of West Bend (pictured above), hiding on a porch after a garage beer party was broken up next door, was shot and killed with virtually no warning. The homeowner who fired the gun was not charged.
The Washington County district attorney ruled that the homeowner was legally defending himself -- indeed, the castle doctrine law didn't even kick in. The DA indicated, however, that if ordinary self defense didn't justify the shooting, castle doctrine would. But there might even be three layers of defense for your average angry or at least fearful white homeowner with a gun: Note that the late Mr. Morrison was black; no word yet on whether racial fears figure into whether the castle doctrine law will protect you if you shoot a minority. The US Civil Rights Act and hate-crime laws notwithstanding, of course.
According to the Wisconsin Bar Association, the castle doctrine law expands a person’s right to use deadly or substantial force against someone who unlawfully and forcibly enters their “dwelling,” “vehicle,” or “place of business,” regardless of whether such force is necessary or reasonable to defend against imminent death or substantial harm. An ordinary self-defense excuse under the law presumes that the use of deadly force was necessitated by the user's fear of physical harm. Clearly, less social responsibility will be required in Wisconsin from now on.
So woe unto you if you're an AT&T U-Verse salesman or a US Census surveryer or a canvasser for a political candidate or a FedEx delivery guy or even just a neighbor who came by to borrow a cup of sugar. Because, in Wisconsin, if a property owner mistakes you for a trespassing criminal seeking to force his way into your home or business, he or she now seems far freer to blast away. Heck, maybe you could even get away with shooting your own spouse, or friend with benefits, by claiming you thought they were a burglar.
This sad state of affairs got me to thinking more generally just how unexpectedly strange Wisconsin has become in the past few years. I'm a native of the north woods, but when I travel up there these days I hardly recognize the area culture. When I was a small-towner growing up in the north, guns were ubiquitous, but seldom seen and rarely fired outside deer hunting season. Now, however, in some ways Wisconsin from about the 45th Parallel north is Alabama or Texas, albeit colder.
For example: Many religious radio stations and right-wing talk shows now crowd northern Wisconsin's AM and FM bands, leaving scant space for the country-western stations that grab most of what's left of the spectrum. More disturbing: Many absolutely huge pick-up trucks with gun racks can now be seen driving about -- and the racks are filled year-round. There are cowboy hats, cowboy boots and even a Confederate flag or two. Honestly.
This is a state that went from cautious thoughtfulness from the family on up to rash, sudden and sweeping ideologies that have imprinted themselves over a laidback way of life now nearly unrecognizable. And one of the biggest changes is how many of our fellow citizens regard and employ projectile weapons. As I mentioned, guns used to be kept out of sight in homes; now, increasingly, they're kept out of sight under a person's clothing as they go to work or even public events, thanks to the new concealed-carry law.
Otherwise sensible friends and relatives from upstate have told me on occasion they wouldn't dare visit me in Milwaukee because they're afraid of being robbed, kidnapped or murdered. When those kinds of irrational fears are shared about in taverns and at work, our ability to work together as one big state is endangered. After all, when I was kid in small-town northern Wisconsin, few people locked their doors, even when they went off on vacation for a week; no longer. And even the smallest towns, like Slinger, are now greater witness to shootings and other physical violence.
This should worry the hell out of our lawmakers. Heck, most of them -- and us -- run into motorists every day whom we quickly realize we cannot trust to follow the rules of the road; why should we assume an equal percentage of people packing guns will make more rational decisions about using them?
We need to focus less on concealment and more on revelation. Let's air out newly stoked fears about crime and "government takeovers" and all those "others" who some of us imagine want to take things away from us. Resolve those over-the-top attitudes, and some of the nation's gun mania will go away. It'd be a start.