While very different from each other, two trials currently attracting public attention in the United States have one feature in common: Defendants believe militias can defend their communities by themselves without breaking the law.
If a murder charge is placed, defense strategies tend to follow a pattern. According to Washington Post journalist Hannah Knowles, it is usually alleged that the defendants attempted a citizen’s arrest, which led to a confrontation where the defendants were forced to shoot the “suspect” in self-defense.
There are laws that encourage even violent action of militias and protect them in cases of criminal charges. Among these laws, some allow arrests to be made by any person instead of a police officer. They are adopted by most states in the country, but have come to be widely questioned after recent events.
These state laws are combined with the “stand your ground” law, versions of which have been adopted by many states. This law removed the obligation to attempt to withdraw to avoid confrontation and the use of deadly force in cases of self-defense.
Before this law, there was the “Castle Law,” which allows the right to shoot to kill if one’s home is invaded. Under the stand your ground law, the citizen can shoot to kill if they feel that their life or physical integrity is threatened anywhere — for example, in a bar, a street, or a public park.
The laws are also combined with state laws that allow people to keep and bear arms. They derive from a constitutional right, but each state regulates that right as it sees fit. Some states allow citizens to buy guns and carry them openly or concealed without a criminal record check or any requirement for specific training.
Due to lobbying by powerful organizations representing arms manufacturers, it is unlikely that the stand your ground law will be overturned in any state. These organizations pour millions of dollars into state and federal election campaigns.
Laws that regulate purchasing, bearing and keeping arms in each state are also supported by these organizations. The Supreme Court will soon rule on New York’s, which places several restrictions on the purchase and possession of a gun.
The law that regulates citizen’s arrests in each state is the poor man’s version of this family of laws that protect militias. There is no lobbying in its favor. Therefore, they are falling into disrepute and beginning to undergo reforms that significantly limit them.
The first state to reform such a law was Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in a suburban Brunswick neighborhood, was killed in Feb. 2020 by three white men — father, son and a neighbor. The three suspected he was a burglar on the run and chased him in two pickup trucks. One of them fired three times at Arbery. At the ongoing trial, they allege that they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest of the suspect and, in the confrontation, one of them shot him in self-defense.*
A year later (in Feb. 2021), Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new law that reformed an old state law created in 1863 to allow slaveholders to pursue and imprison fugitive slaves. According to National Public Radio, the law is a legacy of a racist past in which whites chased Blacks to arrest them — just like today.
The new law prohibits most citizen’s arrests, excepting ones made by store owners who catch customers stealing their products and by off-duty police officers. The use of force that could result in death or serious injury is prohibited — except to defend oneself, defend others and property, or prevent the commission of a crime.
According to CNN, in case of a citizen’s arrest, the police must detain the “suspect” and the citizen who arrested him, who must give statements at the police station. In any case, the prisoner must be released if the police do not show up to take the case within an hour.
“We knew that government action was needed to prevent an antiquated law from the Civil War era from continuing to be used to justify the criminal actions of militias,” said Kemp.**
According to Wikipedia, the laws that created the practice of citizen’s arrests are popular around the world and have existed since the Middle Ages in England. In the U.S., these laws emerged during colonial times and were justified by the lack of police force in some areas. They became more popular during the Civil War, especially in the South, where Confederates fought to defend slavery.
According to The Washington Post, Arbery’s death sparked comparisons to a lynching protected by a law that serves to justify decades of racial violence by militiamen. Next year, the three white men will face hate crime charges in federal court.
The other trial that is currently drawing attention in the U.S. is that of Kyle Rittenhouse. In Aug. 2020, he shot two protesters to death and wounded a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests against police violence after a white policeman fired seven times at Jacob Blake, a Black man, shooting him in the back.***
Rittenhouse, then 17, was a member of a militia. He traveled for 30 minutes from Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, to defend the local community and businesses against what he imagined to be a group of protesters disturbing the order.
*Editor’s Note: Since the original publication of this story, Arbery’s assailants have been convicted.
**Editor’s Note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
***Editor’s Note: Rittenhouse was acquitted on Nov. 19 and the three defendants charged in the Arbery case were convicted of murder on Nov. 24,. Both verdicts occurred after this article was originally published.