In light of the recent terror attack in Orlando, Florida many people are asking the question, “What can the government do to protect the people?” Everything from banning certain types of firearms to prohibiting people on the no-fly list from buying guns to immigration reforms has been proposed as possible government solutions.
However, did you know that the government, and specifically law enforcement, does not have any duty to protect the general public? Based on the headline and this information, you might assume this is a new, landmark decision. However, it has long been the court’s stance that, essentially, the American people are responsible for taking case of their own personal safety.
According to a 2005 ruling from the SCOTUS, the government doesn’t even have a duty to protect you if you’ve obtained a court issued restraining order. From a New York Times article on that ruling:
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the police did not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm, even a woman who had obtained a court-issued protective order against a violent husband making an arrest mandatory for a violation.
The decision, with an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia and dissents from Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, overturned a ruling by a federal appeals court in Colorado. The appeals court had permitted a lawsuit to proceed against a Colorado town, Castle Rock, for the failure of the police to respond to a woman’s pleas for help after her estranged husband violated a protective order by kidnapping their three young daughters, whom he eventually killed.
For hours on the night of June 22, 1999, Jessica Gonzales tried to get the Castle Rock police to find and arrest her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, who was under a court order to stay 100 yards away from the house. He had taken the children, ages 7, 9 and 10, as they played outside, and he later called his wife to tell her that he had the girls at an amusement park in Denver.
A 1989 case found the same thing. Also from the Times:
A 1989 decision, DeShaney v. Winnebago County, held that the failure by county social service workers to protect a young boy from a beating by his father did not breach any substantive constitutional duty.
Going back even further, to 1981, a federal court of appeals found the same lack of responsibility. From the Wikipedia page on Warren v. District of Columbia:
In two separate cases, Carolyn Warren, Miriam Douglas, Joan Taliaferro, and Wilfred Nichol sued the District of Columbia and individual members of the Metropolitan Police Department for negligent failure to provide adequate police services. The trial judges held that the police were under no specific legal duty to provide protection to the individual plaintiffs and dismissed the complaints.
In a 2-1 decision, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals determined that Warren, Taliaferro, and Nichol were owed a special duty of care by the police department and reversed the trial court rulings. In a unanimous decision, the court also held that Douglas failed to fit within the class of persons to whom a special duty was owed and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of her complaint. The case was reheard by an en banc panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Given the fact that the government is not responsible for protecting the general public from common criminals, rapists, mass murderers and terrorists, then why do so many government proposed solutions involve limiting the general public’s access to firearms? It’s a question that is worth considering as we move forward with this discussion.