Pre-Crime and Pre-emptive Civilian Disarmament

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No portents of tragedy were apparent when Matthew Beck arrived for work at the Connecticut Lottery Corporation the morning of March 7, 1998. But barely an hour would elapse before an eruption of criminal violence would take five lives and imperil the rights of thousands

Beck, a 35-year-old accountant, had become disenchanted with his job at the Corporation, which — like its counterparts in other states — is a government-run agency in the business of wheedling revenue from the mathematically impaired.

Over the months leading up to that deadly morning, Beck had applied for a promotion, only to have it turned down. A few months earlier Beck had been given a leave of absence for stress-related medical reasons.

His office-mates knew he was a troubled employee. They didn’t expect, however, that he could simply show up for work at the Hartford office one morning, take out a Glock, and start gunning down his supervisors. But that’s precisely what he did, killing four and sending others scurrying, terrified, into a nearby bosque.

The mass murder then ended, as such episodes almost always do, on the gunman’s terms, rather than because of the actions of police: His victims being dead, Beck took his own life. The security guard on scene did nothing to interdict the massacre; his only role was to urge would-be victims to seek safety in the woods.

The police, as they generally do, arrived just in time to see the assailant kill himself. In a moment of genuine heroism, Otho Brown, 54, the Lottery president, drew Beck’s fire away from the others by leading the younger, fitter attacker on a brief chase before stumbling and being shot.

Beck’s parents and close friends (one of whom clearly anticipated a violent eruption of some sort) reported that the young man suffered from suicidal depression. On at least one occasion prior to the massacre, police had been called to his apartment. But he had no criminal record and did have a valid gun permit.

Within a few months, advocates of civilian disarmament, working their familiar cynical alchemy, transmuted the Connecticut Lottery tragedy into totalitarian policy: With the help of State Representative Michael Lawlor (now chairman of the Connecticut Legislature’s Judiciary Committee), they enacted the nation’s first preemptive gun seizure act. Under that “law,” the police can confiscate firearms from their lawful owners before a crime is committed.

“The value of this law is not so much that police will seize your guns,” Lawlor explained when the measure went into effect in October 1999. “It gives police a system to investigate a person who poses a threat. If the police never confiscate a person’s guns, they can at least look into the person’s behavior and perhaps prevent a tragedy by intervening.”

A recent wire service story celebrating the tenth anniversary of Connecticut’s preemptive civilian disarmament measure reports that since it went into effect, “State police and 53 police departments have seized more than 1,700 guns…. Opponents of [that] gun seizure law expressed fears in 1999 that police would abuse the law. Today, the law’s backers say the record shows that hasn’t been the case.”

To the contrary: The record, as described above, shows that there have been at least 1,700 incidents of abuse that grew out of that enactment. Each confiscation is an act of state theft perpetrated against someone who is innocent before the law.

Lawlor, a former state prosecutor (color me unsurprised), is a standard-issue statist Democrat carved out with the familiar collectivist cookie cutter. I do find it of more than passing interest that he earned a Master’s Degree from the University of London in Soviet-Area Studies, given that his perspective on the role of the law is close kindred to that of Lenin and Vyshinsky (the latter being the patron saint — or the demonic analogue — of public prosecutors).

When Connecticut’s law went into effect nearly a decade ago, Lawlor pointed to the case of neo-Nazi cretin Benjamin Smith, who killed two and wounded nine in a two-state shooting spree, as the sort of person who would be disarmed under his measure.

According to Lawlor (as paraphrased in a 1999 wire service story), “Smith’s criminal record and reputation for passing out hate literature” would offer adequate probable cause to justify a preemptive gun seizure. Of course, this assumes that law enforcement agencies would be in charge of determining what constitutes “hate” literature, and who is responsible for disseminating the same.

What Lawlor clearly had in mind (as I noted at the time) was Soviet-style political profiling and disarmament of specific kinds of people — those deemed by the State to be “socially dangerous persons.” This was the assumption embodied in Article 58 of the Soviet penal code, which specified (as pointed out in the authoritative scholarly study The Black Book of Communism) that the State “may use these measures of social protection to deal with anyone classified as a danger to society, either for a specific crime that has been committed or when, even if exonerated of a particular crime, the person is still reckoned to pose a threat to society.” Lawlor’s gun seizure measure was intended to be the first of many of its kind.

While thus far it remains unique among state laws, it is philosophically of a piece with many proto-totalitarian policies enacted as part of the “war on terror” and the “war on drugs.”

The Connecticut gun seizure measure is obviously a sibling of civil asset forfeiture measures that permit police to steal money and property from people not convicted of a crime. And by permitting authorities to impose summary punishment on “dangerous” but legally innocent people without due process of law, the measure resembles one aspect of the Military Commissions Act (more appropriately called the Final Nail in the Coffin of the Republic Act). That act — as we’ve recently been reminded — permits the government to imprison for life people acquitted of terrorism charges if they somehow avoid conviction in a proceeding that is unapologetically rigged in favor of the prosecution.

If those who rule us possess such oracular insight regarding crimes yet to be committed, and can exercise the power to abort those crimes while they’re still gestating within the souls of lesser people, we should dispense outright with trials and the entire architecture of due process. The State should simply identify, expropriate, imprison, and if necessary liquidate “socially dangerous” people wherever they are found. And that, once again, is exactly what Lenin and his followers attempted.

This isn’t to suggest that Lawlor and his like are stringing up the barbed wire and readying to round up political dissidents. It’s to point out that the legal principles they’re following would make an American gulag inevitable.

Ironically, it is quite simple to identify those who genuinely deserve to be designated “socially dangerous persons”; just look for those who wear State-issued costumes and expect the rest of us to obey their every whim. Significantly, Matthew Beck — although he didn’t wear a paramilitary costume — was a government employee himself (and before working for the Connecticut Lottery, Beck worked for the world’s most loathsome official criminal syndicate, the Internal Revenue Service).

Like every civilian disarmament measure, Connecticut’s gun seizure program enhances the power of the single deadliest cohort in any society: Those who exercise lethal force on behalf of the state. In the months immediately prior to enactment of the gun seizure bill, unnecessary lethal shootings by police agencies in Connecticut had drawn international attention.

As is the case elsewhere, Connecticut has its share of police officers who are implicated in various kinds of abuse and criminal behavior, both felonious and petty. But usually the most acute danger is that posed by good — or not-so-good — police carrying out official duties, rather than bad cops pursuing private corruption.

This is illustrated, ironically enough, by the case of a street homicide committed by a cop who shares Rep. Lawlor’s surname, and who was carrying out a policy connected to Lawlor’s seizure law.

In May 2005, Officer Robert Lawlor was partnered up with Special Agent Daniel Prather of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The pair was part of a federal task force called the Violent Crime Impact Team (VCIT), with Lawlor temporarily deputized as a federal agent.

Their assignment was to prowl the streets of Hartford in search of guns to confiscate. On the evening of May 7, Lawlor and Prather were harassing somebody on the streets when the former spied a black Maxima with a young black male sitting in the passenger seat.

Beckoning Prather to come with him, Lawlor crossed the street, flashed his costume jewelry, and ordered the driver, a young man named Brandon Henry, to stop the car and keep his hands in plain sight. Prather backed Lawlor’s play, only to be startled a few seconds later when five shots rang out, and then Henry, in a panic, pulled away in the car. About a half-mile later, as Prather and Lawlor called for backup, Henry plowed into another car before dashing out and fleeing on foot, leaving a trail of blood.

According to Lawlor, Henry “tried to hit me and pulled a gun on me.” Henry, though shot in the chest, survived. His passenger, 18-year-old Jashon Bryant, died at a nearby hospital. Although a trivial quantity of cocaine was found in the car, a gun never turned up.

Testifying under oath later, Prather reported that he never saw a gun. An official investigation by the State Division of Criminal Justice later verified that neither Henry nor Bryant had a gun, and concluded that “the use of deadly physical force was not appropriate” — which is to say, it was an act of unmitigated murder.

While in the hospital recovering from Officer Lawlor’s assault, Henry expressed disbelief that he could be shot and nearly killed over a small quantity of drugs. That fact may hint at a bigger story. Prior to being tapped for the VCIT task force, Officer Lawlor — whose exaggerated sense of self-importance is captured in his self-assigned nickname, “Robocop” — was part of a street crime unit found to be illegally in possession of a large quantity of narcotics.

The Feds were willing to deputize Lawlor for VCIT despite his pungent, persistent aroma of corruption. Some sense of how Officer Lawlor did business as a street cop is provided by the use he found for drug dealer Jaime Diaz, one of his “confidential informants,” following the shooting of Henry and Bryant.

About a week after the incident, Diaz called the Hartford Police to report that he had the gun Lawlor had allegedly seen in Henry’s car. He dictated a detailed statement to police in which he described how he supposedly came into possession of the weapon. He also insisted that he didn’t know Lawlor or Prather. Two weeks later, Diaz contacted the Police again to retract his statement, admitting that he had invented the story in order to repay Officer Lawlor for refusing to arrest him ten years earlier.

Robert Lawlor is still awaiting trial. Following his indictment, he received a kind of police attention few other murder suspects would expect.

In July 2006, after the State Division of Criminal Justice published its findings, Lawlor was “confronted” outside the Hartford Superior Court by Jashon Bryant’s family; that is to say, he was treated to a small dose of well-deserved heckling and verbal abuse.

The following week, when Lawlor returned for a second pre-trial hearing, “The entrance to the [courthouse] was lined with blue,” reported the local NBC affiliate, WTNH. “State and local police in uniform were there to guard Officer Lawlor from friends and family of the man he’s accused of killing….”

If Connecticut were serious about disarming those who threaten the innocent, taking the guns away from the officers who were willing to stand in professional solidarity with Robert Lawlor would have been a good place to start.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] writes the Pro Libertate blog.

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