Vigilante Justice: A Proper Response to Government Failure

On a hot summer day in 1980, someone, perhaps more than one person, shot and killed Ken Rex McElroy while he sat unarmed in his truck in Skidmore, Missouri. Authorities arrested no one, and nobody admitted to the killing. The "prime suspects" told investigators they were "hiding under the pool table" in a nearby bar.

Angered by the lack of speed with which local authorities were investigating the killing, the FBI muscled into the fray. Local residents were interviewed, threatened, and interviewed some more. Investigators searched in vain for the murder weapon. In the end, the shooting became an official "unsolved crime," and 20 years later the perpetrators still have not been brought to justice.

Of course, Skidmore is not a community where people just shoot each other. To the contrary, it is quite law abiding, but the people there continue to refuse to talk about the killing of Ken Rex McElroy, and for good reason. McElroy had terrorized Skidmore and the surrounding area for more than a decade and his death made life better for the majority of people living there. Holding to the silence surrounding Ken Rex's death is worth keeping of the peace, local residents believe.

The killing of McElroy, however, must be seen in a larger context of the present monopoly that the state has upon law enforcement and the administration of justice. Before tackling that larger issue, however, we need to know the story of this man and his death.

By all accounts, McElroy was mean and intimidating and he feared no one. For example, a local police officer that stopped him for a traffic violation found himself looking at the barrel of a loaded shotgun. Thoroughly intimidated, the officer walked away and didn't have Ken Rex arrested. Others living around Skidmore had similar experiences. Those who tried to press charges against this bully soon had visits from him and were persuaded to change their minds. No witnesses, no crime.

McElroy intimidated his neighbors for more than a decade, buttressed both by his own ferocity and a clever attorney who knew every delaying tactic in the law books. His client told him he would "never spend a day in jail," and he was able to do just that. However, one day Ken Rex stepped over the line, and it would ultimately lead to his death.

A local grocery store owner who had caught one of McElroy's children stealing candy from his store found his family being terrorized almost daily by McElroy. Things disappeared from the family's yard, mailboxes were smashed, and McElroy's pickup truck parked nearby (with Ken Rex at the wheel) became a daily occurrence.

As the situation became heated, McElroy snapped one day and shot the grocer in the neck with a shotgun while he was standing behind the counter. There were no other witnesses, but the man barely survived and filed charges against his assailant. A year of intimidation, ranging from threatening telephone calls to property damage passed before a jury convicted McElroy.

However, because Missouri law permits a convicted felon to remain free on bond pending appeal, the grocer and his family daily had to face an enraged McElroy, who made open threats against his accuser. McElroy's attorney was able to arrange for several delays of the appeals hearing, but after yet another delay, things came to a head.

As McElroy sat drinking in a bar, once again uttering threats against the grocer, a group of armed men from the town entered the establishment. No one spoke, and as McElroy walked out the door, the men followed him. Soon afterward, McElroy was shot to death. The unsuccessful federal investigation against this "unwarranted vigilantism" soon followed.

A television network a few years later broadcast a made for TV movie about the event. However, in this story, the vigilantes, after murdering the bully, turn against decent townspeople and are ultimately found out. After all, as the good police officer tells the perpetrators, one "cannot take the law into their own hands" and become vigilantes.

One of the most pejorative terms one can use in reference to law and self-defense is "vigilante." Indeed, if one is called a vigilante, it is tantamount to being declared a criminal. Public officials, newscasters, and those in law enforcement solemnly tell us "there is no room in this country for vigilante justice." Instead, we must wait for the "justice system" to work, and if it doesn't, well, that is simply a price we pay for having a free society.

Like nearly everything else the political classes tell us, the so-called threat from vigilante justice is like the threat we face from private companies delivering the mail or from home schooling: it undermines an established government monopoly. If we permit people to "take the law into their own hands," we will have innocent people hurt or killed, and the proper wheels of justice will not be permitted to turn.

Before debunking those reasons, we need first to recall the origins of vigilante justice. The term "vigilante" comes from the "Committees of Vigilance" which dotted the western United States in the days following the California Gold Rush. Fortune seekers, some of whom looked to transfer it from others through robbery and murder, overran communities such as San Francisco.

Because there were few law enforcement officials in California, local citizens banded together to fight crime. By all accounts, their actions worked and the crime rate in places like San Francisco was far lower than it is today. As one might also expect, some people abused their powers and government authorities later disbanded the committees.

At this point, most people are ready to say that the prospect of private law enforcement is a guarantee that people will abuse their powers, thus making government-run police a necessity. This argument assumes, of course, that government law enforcement officers do not abuse their powers.

The fact that hundreds of prisoners are released each year because of wrongful convictions puts the lie to that argument. This past year, the State of Illinois released 13 prisoners from death row after DNA testing confirmed their innocence. In other words, the State of Illinois was prepared to kill 13 innocent men and would have done so had not modern science and private attorneys intervened.

During the 1980s and much of the 1990s, power-grabbing district attorneys railroaded dozens of innocent people into prison on what turned out to be ludicrous charges of child molestation. From Manhattan Beach, California, to Edenton, North Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts, states attorneys have falsely accused day care workers of the most horrendous crimes and manipulated juries into sentencing innocent people to life terms in prison. Only later were a few courageous attorneys and newspaper reporters able to expose the tactics of the state and secure the release of many of those victims. (Some people are still jailed even though most experts agree they are innocent. States attorneys, not surprisingly, are fighting to keep them incarcerated in order to save their own reputations.)

The state monopoly on justice, as one can see, offers no protection against false accusation and imprisonment. At the same time, the state will often go to ridiculous lengths not to punish lawbreakers or to allow them to terrorize a community, as was the case with Ken Rex McElroy.

In fact, one can argue that the State of Missouri, by keeping McElroy on the streets of Skidmore, contributed mightily to his death. Whoever shot the man did not do so out of meanness or a desire to commit murder, but rather out of sheer terror. State officials, by electing not to protect its citizens, made them vulnerable to a marauding madman. By all accounts, McElroy was not treated unjustly. Had a committee of armed citizens been permitted to visit him earlier, perhaps he might even have been persuaded of the error of his ways. Instead, the residents of Skidmore, by obeying the law for more than 10 years, received neither justice nor protection from the State of Missouri. In the end, a rough justice was served, but it proved to be better than what the government had offered.

April 4, 2000

William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.