Gun rights groups are sometimes forced to question the actions of the police in cases involving the fatal shooting of law-abiding gun owners. Many such cases involve unannounced police visits when the occupants justifiably believed that they were under threat.
Shawn Knight, 50, Andrew Scott, 26, Eugene Craig, 86, Samuel Pauly, 34, among other legally-armed Americans died after police officers opened fire during unannounced visits. The families of the deceased filed lawsuits against the responding officers and lost the suits because of the qualified immunity argument.
For example, Judge Anne Conway argued that Scott's decision to answer the door with a gun in his hand threatened the safety of Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Sylvester. Similarly, Conway accepted Sylvester's defense that his actions were protected under qualified immunity.
The qualified immunity law shields government officials from civil liabilities arising from the actions they take in the line of duty. In cases of mistaken surprise visits, the court overlooks the violation of the fourth amendment rights, which protects the individuals from arbitrary searches and seizures. In Scott's case, the officers mistook him for a fleeing felon who parked his motorcycle in front of Scott's apartment.
"Andrew Scott made a fateful decision that night: he chose to answer his door with a gun in his hand. That changed everything. That is the one thing that — more than anything else — led to this tragedy," Conway said.
Judge Conway also argued that even if Scott was not pointing the gun at the deputy, his actions were justified because the situation was "tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving." The ruling implies that officers can shoot a gun owner in anticipation of their actions.
Additionally, courts apply the qualified immunity argument in many cases where the suspect did not pose any significant threat.
For example, Louisiana police shot and killed Quamaine Mason, 21, while leaving his girlfriend's house with a gun in his waist. The 21-year old raised his hands when confronted by the police. However, a police dog attacked him, forcing him to release them. The officer shot Mason seven times, killing him on the spot. Still, the officer faced no action because of qualified immunity and the presence of a gun.
Gun rights activists are beginning to demand a reigning in of the qualified immunity argument. They argue that the presence of a gun should not be automatically considered as a threat.
"These cases are rare, but they shouldn't happen at all. When they do happen, law enforcement should be held liable," Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said.
The Second Amendment Foundation also filed a brief urging the supreme court to hear Scott's appeal after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.
"That the court below would shift the blame from Sylvester to his victim, for the latter's deigning to access the Second Amendment, is but the latest episode in the courts' struggle to describe the relationship between the right to keep and bear arms and the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures," SAF's brief read.
Firearms Policy Coalition Director of Legal Strategy Adam Kraut recommended a reform of the qualified immunity.
The issue also splits various police organizations. Some like the Major Cities Chiefs Association support gun control while the more inclusive Fraternal Order of Police supports the citizen's rights to own firearms. To them, the qualified immunity and the Second Amendment rights of citizens are not mutually exclusive.
However, the supreme court has avoided taking cases involving qualified immunity alongside the Second Amendment.
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