Sandy Hook and Pre-emptive Civilian Disarmament

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by William Norman Grigg

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Civilian disarmament advocates insist that the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre illustrates the dangers of inadequately restrictive firearms laws. That assumption is impossible to reconcile with the fact that Connecticut's state government regards individual firearms ownership not as a right but as a highly conditional privilege subject to revocation without notice, on the whim of an unaccountable bureaucrat.

In 1999, the Connecticut legislature enacted Sec. 29-38c, a measure allowing the police to confiscate firearms from anybody believed to pose "a risk of imminent personal injury to himself … or to other individuals." All that is required is a sworn complaint "by any state's attorney or assistant state's attorney or by any two police officers to any judge of the Superior Court." A warrant will then be issued allowing police to confiscate the firearms and hold them for up to a year.

The gun confiscation measure was enacted in October 1999, about a year and a half after the last pre-Sandy Hook mass shooting to occur in the Nutmeg State. The assailant, Matthew Beck, was an ex-employee of the Internal Revenue Service who at the time was employed as an accountant at the Connecticut Lottery Corporation.

A few months before the March, 1998 massacre, Beck had been granted a medical leave for stress-related symptoms. His application for a promotion had been denied. Several of his co-workers and relatives had become concerned about his emotional state. Some of his close friends believed that Beck suffered from suicidal depression. But nobody had expected that he would arrive at work one morning, take out a Glock, and start gunning down his supervisors.

As is always the case in episodes of this kind, the shooter ended the rampage on his own terms, killing himself before the police arrived. The on-scene security guard was similarly useless: The only aid he provided was to suggest to the victims that they take refuge in a wooded area nearby.

Just weeks after the shooting, State Representative Michael Lawlor introduced the gun confiscation measure.

State police Lieutenant Robert Kiehm explained to the Associated Press that the purpose of the measure is to give police officers the power “to take some proactive steps instead of waiting for something to happen.”

“The value of this law is not so much that police will seize your guns,” Lawlor insisted when it took 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.”

During the first decade following its enactment, Connecticut's gun seizure law resulted in the confiscation of at least 2,000 firearms from people who were never charged with crimes. Nearly all of the seizures followed reports from concerned relatives — generally spouses — of the victims. Attorney Rachel Baird, who has represented a dozen Connecticut residents whose firearms have been confiscated, insists that none of them posed any credible threat to anybody, including themselves.

Lawlor, who is now the state's Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, invokes a variation on Dick Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine" ("Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it's a certainty") to justify the gun confiscation program. "Maybe it would have been just a suicide or a single murder of a spouse, but potentially one of these guys along the road could have been a mass shooting," he told NPR.

The standard set out in the Connecticut confiscation law — namely, that guns can be seized from anyone who presents "a risk of imminent personal injury to others" — would justify the pre-emptive disarmament of the police force. After all, the police constitute a body of armed individuals who are trained to employ violence and are rarely held accountable for injuring or killing others without a morally sound reason to do so.

If Lawlor's defense of the measure — that it is justified by the prevention of "just a suicide or a single murder" — were applied seriously, it would buttress the case for disarming the police in Connecticut. Between April and June of 2011, there were four police suicides in Connecticut, a development that prompted authorities to convene a special statewide conference on suicide prevention. That argument is enhanced even further by the case of Hartford Police Officer Robert Lawlor (no relation, as far as I can determine).

In May 2005, Officer Lawlor was part of a federal task force called the Violent Crime Impact Team (VCIT). He and his partner, ATF Agent Daniel Prather, were deployed on the streets of Hartford looking for firearms to confiscate.

On the evening of May 7, Lawlor and Prather — who were decked out in street attire — were harassing somebody on a street corner when the officer spotted a black Maxima with a young black male sitting behind the wheel.

Lawlor strode up to the car, flashed his badge, and ordered the driver, a young man named Brandon Henry, to stop the car and keep his hands in plain sight. He had neither probable cause nor "reasonable suspicion" to justify the contact. A few seconds later, five shots erupted and Henry, in a panic, pulled away in the car. While the officers called for backup, Henry collided into another vehicle before staggering from his car and running away, depositing a bloody trail in his wake.

Although he had been shot in the chest, Henry survived. His passenger, 18-year-old Jashon Bryant, did not. Lawlor, who had approached the vehicle from the passenger side, had shot Bryant in the head. A thorough search of the vehicle turned up a tiny amount of cocaine. No firearm was ever found.

Testifying under oath later, Prather admitted that he never saw a gun in the car — and never heard Lawlor mention one at the time of the shooting. An official investigation by the State Division of Criminal Justice concluded that “the use of deadly physical force was not appropriate.” In other words, Lawlor had committed criminal homicide.

Unlike the people whose guns were stolen by Connecticut police, Lawlor's background demonstrated that he was clearly a danger to the safety of others. He was investigated for a 1990 on-duty shooting in which a 15-year-old boy was needlessly wounded. He was sued on multiple occasions by professional colleagues, who accused him of malicious harassment and reckless driving that resulted in injuries to several other officers.

Lawlor is the kind of fellow who speaks of himself in the third person when explaining to a reporter that he's willing to bend the rules to get things done — and that his problems reflect the fact that his professional colleagues just aren't worthy of him.

"If you’re a boss, is it easier to bring Bobby Lawlor down or is it easier to take 40 other officers and bring them up to my level?” Lawlor said to the Hartford Courant following the 2005 shooting. “I’ve had problems with supervisors because … I fight for the little guy and I know policy and procedure better than the supervisors.”

"Policy and procedure," from Lawlor's perspective, apparently justified subornation of perjury in order to protect himself after he needlessly shot and killed Jashon Bryant.

About a week after the shooting, a minor-league drug dealer named Jaime Diaz called the Hartford Police to report that he had the gun Lawlor had supposedly seen in Henry’s car. Diaz, who insisted that he didn't know Lawlor, provided a detailed statement to police describing how he came into possession of the weapon. Two weeks later, Diaz contacted the Police again to recant his statement, admitting that he was actually a confidential informant who had worked with Lawlor as part of a narcotics task force.

Ten years earlier, Lawlor — once again, acting on "policy and procedure," as he understood the concept — refused to arrest Diaz on a narcotics charge. Now that he was in serious trouble after gunning down an unarmed 18-year-old kid, Lawlor called in the favor.

In July 2006, after the State Division of Criminal Justice ruled that Lawlor's shooting of Jashon Bryant was not legally justified, the officer was confronted by several of the victim's relatives outside the Hartford Superior Court.

When Lawlor returned a week later for a 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….”

Although there was no serious dispute about the facts of the case, Lawlor was acquitted in 2009. It shouldn't surprise anyone that he displayed not a scintilla of regret over the fact that he had needlessly killed an unarmed and terrified 18-year-old boy.

"No mistakes were made," Lawlor defiantly sneered at Bryant's father and sister as the bereaved relatives confronted the killer outside the courthouse. "Being sorry, to me in my personal belief, would be admitting some sort of wrongdoing. I did nothing wrong."

Lawlor did find it appropriate to express sympathy toward someone he considered a worthy victim. After the trial, Lawlor — who by that time had retired with a full pension — whined that the verdict brought to an end "the longest four and a half years of my life." He promptly filed a lawsuit against the prosecutor who had filed criminal charges against him.

If Connecticut's pre-emptive disarmament law had really been intended to mitigate public danger, Robert Lawlor would have been required to surrender his firearms, rather than using them to confiscate guns from other people. But if sociopaths in uniform are required to give up their guns, how would they be able to disarm the rest of us?

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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