Open Season — On Louisiana Car Thieves

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– August 18, 1997

The anchorman’s voice had that “can you believe this?” tone to it as he hammered home the phrase “license to kill!”

Cause of his shock? Louisiana’s new “shoot the carjacker” law, which says that a victim of a carjacking can shoot and kill the thief, and it’s “case closed” as far as Louisiana is concerned. Just file a notch on the old Smith & Wesson.

And what if the “carjacker” is some tipsy tourist tapping on the car window to ask directions to Brennan’s? In that case, you must show that you had a reasonable fear the fellow was trying to invade and steal your car, or you can be prosecuted for firing.

Coming a few years after the state’s similar “shoot the burglar” law — find a burglar in your home, and you can shoot him as a justifiable homicide — the carjacker law confirms for some the observation that Louisiana is the only Mediterranean nation in North America.

But the new law is apparently not all that controversial. While journalists may see a law absolving citizens who shoot thieves as a reversion to frontier justice, the law passed Louisiana’s House 93-3 and its Senate 34-0. The entire state appears to be behind it: black and white, Cajun Catholic and Bible Belt Christian, women and men, liberals and conservatives — though carjackers were not polled.

What produced the new law? The recent rape and murder of a young ad executive by carjackers on the eve of Mardi Gras was one factor. Another is what happened to Miss Louisiana, first runner-up to Miss America 1997. Erika Schwarz drove to her apartment one night last December, pulled into the driveway and was accosted by a man tapping a silver pistol on her window. Terrified, she jumped out, ran, dropped her purse when ordered to but kept running. The thief stole her car, gowns, Miss Louisiana crown and thousands of dollars — and was never caught.

Question: If Erika Schwarz had a gun in her car, aimed it between the eyes of that carjacker and fired, should she have been prosecuted? Of course not. She would have been a heroine. The shoot-the-carjacker and shoot-the-burglar laws are but a logical extension of the inherent right of self-defense, an empowerment of the victims of crime by assuring them that if they use a weapon to wound or kill criminals — while protecting their property, their car, their home or themselves — they will not be prosecuted.

Comes the retort: Neither burglary nor car theft is a capital crime. Why should citizens be permitted to kill those who commit them? Answer: Some burglars and carjackers are rapists, some will kill if caught, and is it a bad thing if all burglars and carjackers must accept “sudden death by shooting” as an occupational hazard? If we wish to cut car thefts and burglaries, and associated crimes, what is wrong with notifying both kinds of criminals that their victims are licensed to shoot them — without even reading them their Miranda rights?

Visiting a brother in New Orleans a few years ago who was then doing his internship at Charity Hospital, I noticed a gun in his car. “What might that be for?” I asked. He told me. In the section where Charity Hospital was, it was a practice of criminals, late at night, to bump the car in front at a red light. When the driver got out to check for damage, he would be beaten and robbed, have his car stolen and survive if lucky. If the victim was a woman, the consequences were usually worse. Should my brother not have been allowed to carry that gun, or use it, if confronting a pair of car thieves?

Most victims of carjackings are women. Some come back from shopping, get into their cars and suddenly face a thug with a knife at their throat who orders them to drive to a secluded place, rapes and occasionally kills them. If a women has a gun in the car and a chance to use it, should she have to inquire first whether the carjacker intends to rape her?

As for the danger of accidents, of misreading a situation and killing an innocent person, it happens. In Louisiana, a few years back, a teenage boy from Japan in a Halloween mask headed to the wrong house. The alarmed resident told him to freeze, a command the boy did not understand. When the boy continued to approach, the man shot him dead. It was a tragedy, as it would be for a man to shoot his wife, mistaking her for a burglar. Yet, in both cases, there appears to be no criminal intent, and if there is no criminal intent, should there be criminal prosecution?

Let Louisianians decide how best to protect themselves. No one else has a better right to and no else, it seems, a better idea.

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