"If we don’t prosecute [him] to the fullest extent of the law, I don’t know who on Earth we would. It makes a sham, a mockery of the law. And it’s pretty hard to argue the guy didn’t have a gun and it wasn’t loaded."
~ Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City
"Plax Burress gets two years in jail for shooting himself and Charles Augusto is a hero for shooting somebody else. What a country!"
~ Facebook Status
I almost didn't submit this piece. Besides, LRC's own Johnny Kramer already summed up my feelings with an essay published during the time of the initial public discourse on the issue. This quote from his essay is absolute money:
To summarize, Burress is being prosecuted not for damaging another person’s body or property, for which that person has filed a complaint, seeking restitution and/or damages; he’s being prosecuted for not having a permission slip from the State to carry his own property. And the people who helped him get medical treatment are being threatened for not turning Burress in to the State for not having a permission slip and because the piece of his property, for which he didn’t have a permission slip, involved in the victimless incident happened to be a gun; and for not cooperating with the State, once the non-crime came to its attention, in helping it gather evidence to prosecute Burress for the non-crime, and possibly to prosecute them for their involvement in the non-crime too.
Little more need be said. And if you need more, Kramer and others already said much of it. (Despite that admission, I could not help but offer my own thoughts recently on the LRCBlog, with "Shoot Them, You Win. Shoot You, You Lose.") Now that Burress has been sentenced, it seems appropriate to revisit the case, not because there are new truths from a libertarian and moral perspective, but because it still incenses me for this man to be going to jail — a place rightly reserved for evil people who have infringed upon others directly — for a crime that is, at best, man-made and at worst, non-existent. One of my anarchist friends may have said it best with, "from a libertarian perspective, Burress going to jail for what he did is an Orwellian nightmare of the highest order."
Another reason I feel so compelled to again chime in on this issue involves the racial component, particularly as it resonates in combination with the fact that Burress is a professional athlete. The final reason I feel compelled to pontificate as Plaxico is sent to Riker's Island has to do with this opinion, which I believe to be fact: Everyone should be armed if they so desire, not just athletes. Burress being armed represents neither the exception nor the rule.
What Part of "Self Defense" Don't You Understand?
Some time ago, black sports reporter and pundit Stephen A. Smith voiced a commentary on ESPN that fit well with the typical reaction to an event like Burress shooting himself. For example, Smith voiced his extreme disappointment with black athletes who seem to not understand that they cannot misbehave without consequence. In this regard, I agree with him, largely. There are consequences for behavior. All people, be they professional athletes, politicians, or run-of-the-mill citizens should realize this. However, this event is not about bad behavior — not in the slightest. From the libertarian and more importantly, from the moral standpoint, Plaxico Burress did nothing wrong. He injured himself with his own property. Let that sink in for a moment.
Charles Augusto also discharged an illegal firearm, actually killing several people, on purpose. He was rightfully defending himself, but it’s still incredibly similar. (For the record, my heart does not bleed for the rights-infringers Augusto shot.) I suspect that Plax wanted to avoid the fates of Darrent Williams and Sean Taylor, both NFL players, both shot by others (one of them, Taylor, in his own home). Plaxico Burress felt he had to protect himself — and he had data that suggested such a step was prudent — so he carried a gun. The Constitution affirms this right; it does not grant it. As such, the City of New York cannot take it away.
One last bit of context is worth noting. Burress went through the metal detectors that are, as far as I know, relatively standard in night clubs such as the one he visited. His gun was found by security. They let him through with it. Let that sink in too. (Apparently, the people tasked with keeping the club safe also realized that Plaxico was not out of line to be carrying a burner!) Yet, somehow, the DA can throw the book at him for not having an appropriate permission slip. If the owners of the property, or their representatives, didn't care, who is the complainant?
The mind reels.
Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL was quoted as saying, "if you're in a place where you suspect you need to protect yourself, you should leave that situation." This initially might appear to be a fine, if tragically simplistic, motherhood statement. Under scrutiny, such a sentiment is ludicrous to the point of hilarity. Apparently, Commissioner Goodell thinks that only a person in the wrong place will ever need to defend himself. Given that the aforementioned Sean Taylor was killed in his home, I reckon such infantile logic — and I use that term loosely — as employed by Goodell can be placed in its proper context and completely ignored. Where Burress wanted to go, where Burress should have gone, and the fact that he carried a gun are separate issues.
In a truly free society, with a truly free market, one should be rewarded or punished for doing whatever he feels is appropriate, as long as he does not infringe upon the private property of another. The consequences fit the behavior. The Burress case and its resulting punishment reflect a quasi-parenting paradigm that is incessant in the American body politic. This punishment paradigm is antithetical to private property since it is based upon a belief that the State — much like an ignorant, overbearing parent — can do whatever it likes to its subjects, ownership and property be damned. The State owns everything, including you, and can therefore punish as it sees fit.
I have written about this error in logic before, but that such a paradigm continues to exist so virulently is still disturbing. More distressing, it seems that race and status interact to further confuse the issues. I have heard it said that if Burress was either poor or not famous, he wouldn't even have stood trial. I believe this to be the case; and while it saddens me, it does not surprise me. If justice is the goal or the result, why would such an observation be so believable?
This case might not necessarily be about race, but it is definitely about status. The Burress prosecution presented the DA with an opportunity to “make his bones” by pursuing a high-profile, wealthy, dare I say, uppity Negro athlete. (Recall that Eliot Spitzer made his bones pursuing wealthy, uppity Wall Street types.) The DA can’t really pursue Augusto because he’s just a regular guy who the local press has made into a hero. Not so with Burress.
An acquaintance of mine remarked that "Burress deserves to be punished for being stupid. People could have been injured!" Really? That anyone would cheer this outcome is proof that Queen Amidala was right when she noted, "So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause." If people can be put in cages for what might have happened, and frankly the U.S. is well along that course, it's just a matter of time before the erstwhile mistakes you made become offenses punishable with jail time. (Wait. Is that the phone ringing? It's probably George Orwell calling to get his 1984 back.) If the Burress case reflects how we view law and order in a just and civil society, the economic ignorance exposed during the current fake health care debate is the least of our worries.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.