A Quick Observation on the “Too Many Laws” Argument (as Linked to Garner)

While I need to formulate (and am working on it, in fact) more well developed response to the discussion of the role played by the law on cigarettes in the death of Eric Garner, I do have a simple response I want to note (it is a thought that has occurred to me more than once as I have read and heard assertions about the situation)

Jonah Goldberg serves as most proximate inspiration:

But only unreasonable people can deny that those laws are partly to blame. Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period.

In reading this (and similar assertions–i.e., that more laws equal more chances for law enforcement to go awry, ergo, have so many laws is part of the problem) I have to wonder if the libertarian/anti-government types are willing to recognize that this is exactly the argument that many make about guns after a mass shooting (i.e., if guns weren’t so easy to access that event X would not have happened–both are vested in a basic assertion about probability).  And, further, that libertarian/anti-government types always reject those probability arguments in that context.

I will also state that I will be a bit “unreasonable” (from Goldberg’s POV) and “deny” that the law was “to blame” in the following sense:  there is nothing in the law that required the actions of the police officer in question.   While the law was ostensibly the motivation for the confrontation, the way the police behaved is the issue here, not the law.  If anything, that law has not, to my knowledge, resulted in other deaths so from a probability point of view, this assertion is nonsense.

I will revert to “reasonable” however, and agree that more laws do, in fact, increase the chances of police-citizen interaction.  However, again, the issue is not the interaction itself, per se, but rather is that behavior of those engaged in the interaction.  This should be the focus of this discussion, not whether one favors a given law or not.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. humanoid.panda says:

    David Frum, of all people, gives the best, and pithiest, rejoinder to this nonsense:

    “If police had strangled a motorist during a routine traffic stop, would ppl say the answer is to abolish red lights?”

  2. @humanoid.panda: Indeed. I had a thought about the traffic code as well, but did not conjure an appropriately succinct way of putting it.

  3. humanoid.panda says:

    That’s why Frum is getting the big bucks 🙂

    Seriously though, I think a weaker version of the “OMG cig. tax argument” was made by Balko in his famous story on Ferguson. Over there, cities use traffic stops, court fees, and so forth to basically fund the fractured, poor, and low-tax municipalities of the St. Louis on the backs of the poor. However, this is not the case in New York, I think.

    Another, much smarter version of the tax argument would point the flashlight towards another issue: “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing. (i.e the idea that if you don’t punish cigarette tax evaders, soon you will lose neighborhood to drug dealers,). Of course, Goldberg is a huge supporter of that particular policy..

  4. CET says:

    @humanoid.panda:
    Another, much smarter version of the tax argument would point the flashlight towards another issue: “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing.

    This. If police are encouraged to harass, search, and detain ‘suspicious looking’ (e.g. poor looking people and/or minorities), the proximal justification is irrelevant. If it hadn’t been cig. taxes, it would have been loitering or a ‘nuisance’ law, or blocking a sidewalk, etc.

    I think part of the the problem is that lots of people like the visible effects of these kinds of policies – it keeps ‘rough looking’ people from hanging around on the streets and makes the area look safer.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    (Spell check got you in the sentence after the Goldberg quote. Awry.)

  6. RKae says:

    Libertarians grate on me more and more each day.

    I’m convinced that it’s a political philosophy invented by (and for) 14-year-old boys.

    And thank you for writing “libertarian/anti-government”! They absolutely deserve to be connected by a narrow little slash.

  7. @gVOR08: Thanks.

  8. Jim R says:

    I think the lesson to be taken here is that the enforcement of laws against ‘victimless crimes’ — in this case, merely selling cigarettes — necessarily involve acts of aggression against individuals who have themselves committed no aggression against others. Sure, the arrest could have gone differently depending on the actions of those involved — Eric Garner could only have been carted off to jail instead of killed — but an injustice would have been committed either way. Garner was committing a peaceful act, harming no one, and deserved only to be left alone.

  9. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Here’s a unifying thread for both: it’s about accepting — hell, embracing — personal responsibility.

    In the law example, it’s about fully understanding and accepting the possible consequences of a law. Think damned hard, and do so several times, before passing a law.

    In the case of guns, before you accept the responsibility of owning a gun, spend plenty of time thinking about all the possible consequences of gun ownership, and prepare yourself to face and accept them if you choose to own a gun.

    Thinking “this is a good idea, one that everyone should follow, so I’ll make a law about it” is about as responsible as “I want to have a gun, and because I’m a smart and good person I don’t have to worry about accidents or having it stolen or forgetting to lock it up or anything.”

    As we’ve seen, both attitudes tend to get people killed.

  10. Hal_10000 says:

    I think this is confusing the cause. If it hadn’t been cigarettes, it would have been *something*. Yes, there are too many laws and basically everyone in America is a law breaker if the cops decide they are. But I don’t think this started with enforcing cigarette laws. It started with deciding to get this guy. The cigarettes were an excuse.

  11. Jay Dee says:

    I’m a former law enforcement officer. The plain fact of the matter is that every law on the books is enforced by the lethal power of the state from zoning laws to jay walking to parking violations to overdue library books. Your day to day life depends on the sufferance of the people you elected to office.

    In an era where it is estimated that everyone, that means you, commit an average of 6 felonies a day and apocryphal stories of prosecutor offices brainstorming how they can prosecute various people, one would be hard pressed to argue that we do not have too many laws.

    We have got to lose the idea that one more law will make everything right and seriously start considering reducing our laws to a sensible level.

    Gun control is a very good example. I think that all would agree that crimes like murder, assault, and robbery were crimes before guns were invented. Passing ever more draconian laws on the general population of law abiding citizens will not make us any safer. In fact, it will do the opposite as law enforcement resources are stretched even thinner enforcing more and more laws.

    Connecticut is a fine example of this mentality. Connecticut gun laws were some of the most stringent in the nation prior to the Sandy Hook massacre. Yet the legislature hastily passed new legislation. Now they are faced with over three quarter million scofflaws. Gun control advocates are encouraging police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households; we need to kill a few thousand people to save lives. Meanwhile, the root causes, the lack of mental health services and the dearth of school security, have largely been ignored.

    The Bloomberg & Gates funded Initiative 594 in Washington state promises to be a real clown circus. Sold as a sensible gun control law, it was immediately realized after the fact that it conflicts with day to day police operations, maritime safety laws and home construction tools with even more bizarre circumstances arising every day. The latest I was reading is that the law could even be applied to lawn mowers. Just think, someone who mows their lawn a little late in the evening can now be charged with a felony rather than a noise citation. For their part, gun rights advocates celebrated the new law with a civil disobedience event at the state capitol. Perhaps, Bloomberg & Gates will now start advocating that Washington state start killing people to save lives.

    I would like to make several suggestions.

    First, think before passing new laws. Forget feelings. Get the facts straight. Stop and think how this law will be used against you. Catastrophe will follow those laws that feel good but fail to match the facts. Be especially suspicious of slick campaigns to sell new legislation like Washington state’s I-594. Someone is benefiting; it’s not you.

    Second, we have to lose the idea that big government is all-knowing, all-seeing and all good. This is simply a perversion of traditional religions. Like a religion, it promises benefits with no apparent means of accomplishing the ends and despite all experience to the contrary. Really, really, REALLY believing even more in a demonstrably false belief will not make it work.

    Finally, we seriously need to prune the morass of laws on the books. I propose a sunset law that if a law or regulation has not seen any enforcement action in a decade, it should be stricken from the books.

  12. James Pearce says:

    @Jay Dee:

    Gun control advocates are encouraging police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households

    No, they’re not.

    I could respond in further depth, but why bother? You can’t reason with the unreasonable.

    In a bigger picture, sense, though I do encourage conservatives to continue thinking about things in these terms. They’re halfway there. Once they acknowledge that more laws lead to more police interactions, then they can tackle the problem of making those interactions less deadly.

    And that’s going to need a “big government” solution: as in, “don’t kill people for small provocations or we’ll throw you in jail.”

  13. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @James Pearce: Gun control advocates are encouraging police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households

    No, they’re not.

    Why aren’t they?

    This is exactly what opponents of Connecticut’s gun control laws predicted would happen. The backers won, and now they have to live up to their victory. They either need to demand that the law be enforced, and be considered idiots, or say nothing, and be considered cowards and hypocrites.

    That law has made criminals out of about 350,000 people who refused to comply with it. The law was written with very clear penalties for those who violate it. It is incumbent upon the law’s backers, who demanded the law be passed, be equally vocal in demanding that it be enforced.

    That’s the whole point of any law. Especially a law so goddamned important that it will, as the backers claim, save many lives, especially children’s lives.

    Aren’t those lives worth saving? How can it be critical to pass a law, but unimportant to see that the law is actually followed?

    You (well, people who agree with you, I presume) passed the law. You said it was so critical to do so, and such a fair and just law. Well, your side won. Own your victory and demand the law be enforced.

    Or just admit that you’re cowards and hypocrites who don’t have the testicular fortitude to do what you say is so critically important.

  14. Chip says:

    The idea that it is minor laws that create the engagement with the police fails when you look at race.
    Yes, we all commit 6 felonies a day according to libertarians.

    Yet how many (white) people reading this thread have had police become engage them in these felonies? Or when engaged, how many times have you had the police become belligerent and violent?

    Yet these are common occurrences in the black community. Most black people either have had this happen, or know someone who has.

    When the power structure sees a 12 year old black child as a threat to be met with deadly force, it doesn’t need a pretext- that child is going to die.

  15. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Classic confusion between causation and attribution.

    The doctor who delivered Garner caused his death by choking, but he wasn’t responsible for it. The same goes for cigarette sales laws.

  16. James Pearce says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: I don’t know what law you’re talking about, but whatever it is, I’m sure it doesn’t call for “police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households.”

    There have been, however, laws that have been floated –some passed, some didn’t– about background checks and magazine limits. This is often portrayed by opponents as “encouraging police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households,” but is of a substantially different quality.

    In fact, it’s of such a different quality that it leads a reasonable person to wonder if that argument is being made in ignorance or just plain dishonesty. It is not, by any measure, accurate.

  17. Grewgills says:

    @Jay Dee:

    In an era where it is estimated that everyone, that means you, commit an average of 6 felonies a day

    That is a complete load of crap. Just because someone pulls a number out of their butt doesn’t make it true.

  18. James Pearce says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Or just admit that you’re cowards and hypocrites who don’t have the testicular fortitude to do what you say is so critically important.

    I usually skim only the first couple lines of your comments to see which direction you’re going in, so I missed this.

    Again, I laugh in your general direction.

    No, we’re not going to “admit we’re cowards and hypocrites” every time some right winger has the “testicular fortitude” to indulge in bad faith BS.

  19. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @James Pearce: I don’t know what law you’re talking about, but whatever it is, I’m sure it doesn’t call for “police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households.”

    The law in question is replete with references to Class B, C, and D felonies. See Section 53 for examples of each.

    How hard would it be for a police officer to get a no-knock warrant for someone who they have probable cause to believe is guilty of a gun-related felony?

    Currently, it’s largely hypothetical, as a LOT of police chiefs in Connecticut are out and out refusing to enforce this law. But should the same people who pushed so hard for this law start leaning on the police to enforce it, that could change quite quickly.

  20. @Jenos Idanian #13: So all laws that define acts as felonies are calls to “police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households”?

  21. James Pearce says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: I saw nothing in that link that persuaded me that you and Jay Dee were not indulging in some rather ridiculous hyperbole.

    Sorry.

  22. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: They all open the door. I assume you’re unfamiliar with the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases, which have led to numerous innocent people being killed or wounded. In one case, the police threw a flash-bang grenade into an infant’s crib, maiming him.

    Would you care to explain what it means when a state defines an activity (such as owning a “high-capacity” magazine) as a felony, if it doesn’t mean that it is something the state takes very seriously and will lock you up for at least a year for engaging in it? Should one not take it seriously?

  23. @Jenos Idanian #13: I guess in studies I missed the part where the definition of a felony is a call for “police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households.”

  24. James Pearce says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Wait….we started with kicking up doors and shooting up households, you know…real gangsta shit.

    And now we’re reduced to being taken very seriously?

    (Honestly Jenos if you had started here, you would have had a major point.)

  25. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I guess in studies I missed the part where the definition of a felony is a call for “police to start kicking in doors and shooting up households.”

    Hey, I can do condescending, too. I might not be as good at it, but if that’s the appropriate style, I’ll give it a whirl.

    Apparently you were asleep when it was explained that felonies are considered serious crimes — they’re pretty much the definition of what society considers a “serious” crime. And serious crimes involving guns tend to be inherently dangerous, which means that the police, when called upon to enforce the law that says what someone is doing is a felony, tend to expect danger. And when they expect danger, they take precautions to keep themselves safer. This is their usual excuse for seeking a no-knock warrant.

    A “no-knock warrant,” in case you aren’t familiar with the term, is often carried out by breaking down doors. Sometimes they kick it in, but more often they use a battering ram or other device.

    Now for the “shooting up households,” we have nervous cops rushing into a home where they expect to find a felon with an illegal firearm. They are ready to shoot to defend themselves. And in some cases, they have a little oopsie and shoot first. And once that first shot is fired, the police have a disturbingly predictable tendency to shoot anyone who is A) not clearly identifiable as a cop, or B) not in a completely submissive position. Which includes startled and confused resident who walk out of bedroom doors at the ruckus wondering what the hell is going on.

    And while this might seem like fantasy to you, it’s all too real. Just substitute “drugs” for guns and there are plenty of real-world examples of just this very thing happening. And it’s happening despite all your surprise and condescension.

    I know, I’m shocked, too, that your sensibilities don’t bear more weight, but it’s true.

    For now, the law isn’t being enforced because a great number of police chiefs have openly declared that they won’t enforce it. But the law is still on the books, which means that those chiefs are technically violating the law and refusing to do their duties.

    You might find it comforting that they are doing this. I do, too, but i find it even more disturbing. This is NOT the sort of safety measure we as a society should use, let alone depend upon.

    The law is on the books. It either needs to be enforced or repealed. Just ignoring it is NOT an acceptable option. The chiefs’ actions (or, rather, their refusal to act) isn’t a solution, it’s a move to buy time to really address the situation.

  26. Grewgills says:

    @Jay Dee:

    I’m a former law enforcement officer. The plain fact of the matter is that every law on the books is enforced by the lethal power of the state from zoning laws to jay walking to parking violations to overdue library books.

    That you and people like you work as law enforcement while holding this ridiculously exaggerated view is frankly terrifying. That fear is somewhat alleviated by realizing that you are almost certainly engaging in hyperbole and would never have choked to death a citizen because they crossed the street in the middle of the block.

  27. @Jay Dee:

    to overdue library books

  28. Barry says:

    Steven: “I will revert to “reasonable” however, and agree that more laws do, in fact, increase the chances of police-citizen interaction. However, again, the issue is not the interaction itself, per se, but rather is that behavior of those engaged in the interaction. This should be the focus of this discussion, not whether one favors a given law or not.”

    Yes, because as the saying goes, we all commit three felonies a day.

    However, who ends up arrested, and who ends up dead, is not a random sample of the populace.

    And in the Ferguson case (and many other towns), unreasonable enforcement of necessary laws is quite sufficient for f*cking people over.

    I’ll make a rape analogy – men who are not rapists don’t get uncontrollably aroused by how a woman is dressed – rapits are quite deliberate.

  29. @Barry:

    However, who ends up arrested, and who ends up dead, is not a random sample of the populace.

    Indeed.

    This is, of course, the underlying point (or, at least, one of them) about much of this conversation.

  30. Barry says:

    @Jay Dee:

    “I’m a former law enforcement officer. The plain fact of the matter is that every law on the books is enforced by the lethal power of the state from zoning laws to jay walking to parking violations to overdue library books. Your day to day life depends on the sufferance of the people you elected to office.”

    No, black people’s lives do.

    BTW, how are Cliven Bundy and the others who pointed guns at police officers to continue committing crimes doing? Did any survive?

  31. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: This is, of course, the underlying point (or, at least, one of them) about much of this conversation.

    There is a certain amount of self-selection going on, as well, and that always spoils the random sampling process.