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Missouri Senate Moves to Make Murder Legal — Especially Murdering Black People

A self-defense bill under consideration by the Missouri state Senate would make it easy to get away with murder, especially if there are no witnesses. In a state with a history like that of Missouri, it’s hard to see how it’s not inviting an open season for racist killings.

Scott Cooper

February 6, 2022
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Armed homeowners Mark and Patricia McCloskey stand in front their house as protesters march to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson's house.
Image: Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Missouri state Senate is “celebrating“ Black History Month by debating a new law regarding the use of “self-defense“ in murder cases. The law is so bad, that even a county prosecutor — who is a key cog in the wheel of the capitalist system of injustice that targets people of color and the most marginalized sectors of the working class — called it “racist“ and dubbed it the “Make Murder Legal Act.”

On Tuesday, February 1, a state Senate hearing heard testimony on the proposed bill, which would expand Missouri’s current “Stand Your Ground” laws. At present, Missouri law requires that people prove they believed it was necessary to use deadly force to defend themselves. Senate Bill 666 would turn that on its head, establishing a “presumption of reasonableness” that people believed deadly force was necessary to protect themselves or others — and granting criminal immunity for using deadly force in self-defense against a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.

Investigators would be prevented from arresting and charging any individual until they can confirm it wasn’t a stand-your-ground situation. Prosecutors would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” during a pretrial hearing that a “defendant” was acting on motives other than self-defense before charges could be pressed. It’s like giving the “qualified immunity” killer cops enjoy to the general public, and opening up hunting season on humans. Qualified immunity shields cops from liability when they break the law.

Sen. Eric Burlison (R-Battlefield), who filed the legislation, said in a press release, “Sadly, we have recently watched the justice system be used as a weapon against law-abiding citizens for simply defending themselves. No one should have their lives ruined like what has happened to Kyle Rittenhouse.”

Rittenhouse shot and killed two unarmed protesters, and wounded a third, during a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. He argued self-defense and was acquitted. When that verdict was returned, Left Voice characterized it as a “green light for right-wing vigilantism.”

Burlison and the Missouri Senate are taking up that cause.

What Is “Stand Your Ground”?

“Stand Your Ground” laws allow people to use deadly force even in circumstances where they face no genuine threat. Promoted as part of “self-defense,” they exist in one form or another in more than half of U.S. states. Florida is typically considered the model for everything that’s wrong with such laws.

There is substantial research showing that these laws — which are disproportionately invoked to justify violence against people of color — simply increase gun violence and deaths. For instance, according to the Giffords Law Center, firearm homicide rates increased by 32 percent in Florida. Further, in nearly 80 percent of Florida Stand Your Ground Cases, the “assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation.” In 68 percent of cases, the person killed was unarmed.

Most U.S. jurisdictions where “stand your ground” is legal have carved out exceptions that make it just fine to “shoot first and ask questions later” — a saying from the American “Old West” — instead of de-escalation or simply walking away from a confrontation. The key exception is to allow for “stand your ground” anywhere; originally, the concept was part of the so-called Castle Doctrine, based on the theory that “your home is your castle” and if someone broke in you could use deadly force to repel the assault.

The Castle Doctrine traces its origins to ancient Rome, and was codified in English law in the early 17th century. Many U.S. states adopted this and other aspects of English common law in the early days of the new country. Like so many other laws, it was typically the exclusive purview of white property owners.

Depending on the jurisdiction, some states include an explicit or vague “duty to retreat” to avoid violence in laws based on the Castle Doctrine, if one can reasonably do so, and if it’s not the person’s home. Florida’s law, enacted in 2005, explicitly removes a person’s duty to “retreat” before using deadly force against another person in any place the first person has the legal right to be. All you have to do to invoke this “right” is to say you believed you or someone else faced imminent death or great bodily harm. It’s the law George Zimmerman used to justify his racist profiling and killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Florida— one of only hundreds of examples of these laws being used to get away with murder.

Consider just two from before Trayvon Martin. Seven years earlier, also in Sanford, two white security guards opened fire on Black teenager Travares McGill, age 16, as he sat in a car at an apartment complex. First they shined a bright light into the vehicle, without identifying themselves. When McGill tried to back out and get away, the two white men shot him in the back. While they were brought to trial, they claimed self-defense and were acquitted based on the Florida law.

In 2007, a 62-year-old white man in the Houston suburb of Pasadena saw two Black Hispanic men leaving the home of his neighbor. He called 911 to report a burglary and told the dispatcher, “I’ve got a shotgun. Do you want me to stop them?” He was told not to — 14 times! — but instead can be heard on the 911 call opening his front door, racking the gun, and shouting, “Hello. You’re dead!”

He shot Hernando Riascos Torres and Diego Ortiz in the back, killing both men. A grand jury declined to indict him, essentially based on “stand your ground.”

Simply put, Stand Your Ground laws are license to kill, obtain immunity, and walk away — even if you start the confrontation or it could have been safely de-escalated by walking away. The killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia are the exception, rather than the rule: they used “stand your ground” and “self-defense” to avoid going to prison, but were found guilty.

Opponents of the bill before the Senate include the NAACP and other organizations in the Black community. But there’s also vocal opposition from a rogue’s gallery of groups representing the different racist forces of the “justice” system in the state: the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; Missouri Sheriffs United; the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police; and the police unions in the state’s two largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis. Most of these groups have issued statements critiquing the proposed new law for the restrictions it will put on their ability to fight crime. But really, they see it as stepping on their toes and limiting their ability to arrest and charge whoever they want, whenever they want, with impunity.

As Stoddard County prosecuting attorney Russ Oliver said in the Senate hearing, “What we are doing with this bill is … basically saying the 6,500 assaults that are committed every single year in Missouri — that every single one of those are automatically presumed to be self-defense.” It was Oliver who dubbed the bill the “Make Murder Legal Act” during the hearing.

Targeting the Black Community

Opposition to Senate Bill 666 from Black organizations is a recognition of its racist character — racism being a feature of Missouri since its beginnings. Missouri became a state — a slave state — to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Maine as a “free” state. Between 1882 and 1968, more Black people were lynched in Missouri than in any other state above the Mason-Dixon Line. The state had a large number of “sundown towns” — all-white municipalities Black people knew not to be found in after dark. It was the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 that accelerated the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Right now, the state is on the front lines of efforts to keep students from learning the true history of racism in this country.

It is only geographical latitude that precludes Missouri from being the “Deep South.” Its schools, municipal swimming pools, and other public facilities were as segregated as any part of Mississippi or Alabama.

Nimrod Chapel, president of the statewide NAACP, referenced the bill’s 666 number in his testimony. “This bill is aptly named because it will be dragging Missouri right into hell. I can’t tell you the levels of pain that Missouri families will experience. What you will see in rural communities will mirror the same pain and agony that we as minorities have experienced for decades.”

In an interview, Chapel described the bill as essentially allowing anyone to go “penalty-free for murder.” He added, “It turns everything that we know about the rule of law as related to murder on its head.” And he said that the presumption that anyone who shoots a person did it in self-defense would create a “culture of death.”

Brian Williams, a Democrat and only Black member of the Senate committee that held the hearing, pointed to the Arbery killing to make his case. He noted that the law — which he called “bullshit” — would prevent even charging those killers if it had happened in Missouri.

“I was the first Black man in two decades to be elected to this body,” he told the hearing. “This is one of the most offensive pieces of legislation I have ever seen in my life. It’s a personal attack on me. It’s a personal attack on people who look like me.”

Williams was sparring with Mark McCloskey, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri, who testified at the hearing. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because you may remember him from the photos of him and his wife Patricia (among them, the one at the top of this article), in June 2020, brandishing weapons as Black Lives Matter protesters marched past their house on their way to the home of the St. Louis mayor. The two were charged with felony weapons violations, pleaded down to misdemeanor fourth-degree assault, and were pardoned by Governor Mike Parson. McCloskey turned that into a right-wing campaign for federal office.

McCloskey said at the time that he was in fear for his life, claiming that the peaceful marchers were a “mob” that had threatened murder and rape. Last April, he told a tale about receiving a warning after the incident that a mob of thousands was headed to his home to kill him and his wife as retribution for pointing those guns.

McCloskey knows what the law is really about, which is why he supports it. It’s about making it legal to kill Black people at will — a practice that has a long history in the state. 

St. Charles County prosecuting attorney Timothy Lohmar characterized Senate Bill 666 as establishing that “anybody who committed assault or murder and claims they were acting in self-defense is presumably correct and their actions were legal.”

If enacted, the law could not help but embolden racist killers acting out of sight of anyone else. “It would mean that practically in every murder case where you don’t have a witness,” continued Lohmar, “all the defendant has to say is that he or she was acting in self-defense to get away with it. It also means you are going to have a lot of murderers walking free if this becomes law.”

It may seem hyperbolic to say the law would create an open season on people of color for racist Missouri hunters. But Missouri’s history up until today makes the characterization seem just right.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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