DE GRACIA: Public law is no remedy for moral corruption

From Wall Street regulations to Stand Your Ground, legislators think more laws are the answer. Photo: Can human weakness be remedied by more laws? (AP File Photo)

HONOLULU, July 18, 2013 – When first-time candidates run for office, most pitch a platform promising “change” in the form of new laws. Incumbent legislators are often attacked by challengers not for the number of bad bills canned in committee, but for the number of introduced measures that actually made it into law.

At the Hawaii State Legislature, a newly-hired Senate analyst was once given the assignment of reading the 2011 Session Laws of Hawaii (SLH) and complained when her boss was away that she faced reading thousands of pages packed with dense legalese. A veteran House staffer simply smiled and replied, “The SLH covers a couple of months of lawmaking and is more than a foot thick. Yet the Bible contains thousands of years of God’s commands to man and is only three inches thick on average. What does that say about how many laws they’re making here?”

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As that incident perfectly illustrates, legislators are lawmaking mass-producers. (Prior to going paperless, in years past whenever the Hawaii State Legislature was in session, the cost of printer paper in Honolulu would rise by a few cents.) It also underlines the more important fact that even God, who is infinitely powerful and wise, could not by the means of law alone make humans righteous or the Earth more verdant.

Laws do not make good citizens nor do they prosper the environment. As is evident by thousands of years of human civilization, the only thing laws really accomplish is condemnation for those who engage in banned behaviors.

Two thousand years before libertarians took to the internet to argue with Republicans and Democrats whether or not municipal garbage collection was “good” government, the Apostle Paul wrote to fellow Roman Christians that “by the deeds of the law shall there shall no flesh be justified in [God’s] sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

The law may forbid, as an example, the act of banking fraud but the law cannot make a liar honest. Another law may forbid public littering, but no law can make a messy person neat. In both cases the only thing law can do is assign punishment to those who break the law.

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This is why regarding God’s perfect law Paul would later write to the Corinthians that “the letter killeth, but the Spirit gives life” and even ancient Jewish authors before him wrote “reproof entereth more into a wise man than an hundred stripes into a fool.” The letter of the law can only punish or deter, not reform. Paul therefore taught that human justification comes not from compliance to the law but rather through faith in God for unmerited grace and forgiveness.

This brings us to an important question: If God could not justify humans with law, how much less can well-intentioned legislators fix America with their committee-amended laws?

As a more recent example, during the George Zimmerman murder trial many libertarian and conservative observers anxiously hoped the jury would acquit Zimmerman out of paranoia that President Obama would use a guilty verdict as a pretext to commence gun confiscation.

To some, the Zimmerman trial was less about second degree murder and more about making Zimmerman an issue palladium for civilians to have a one-step use of-force continuum that selects deadly force as the first and only means of threat resolution. When Zimmerman was acquitted, libertarians and conservatives celebrated the Second Amendment and Florida’s stand-your-ground law as having been vindicated.

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This response is a curious approach to order and public safety, considering even the unbearably strict ancient tradition of law was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth … not death for an eye, a death for a tooth. If civilians have the power to unilaterally determine on a subjective basis whether or not they can select deadly force as a remedy to danger in public, one might as well completely abolish all police forces and all courts and allow individuals to have unlimited jurisdiction.

The whole question of modern civilization vs. Ugg the Caveman now comes into the spotlight - if we are free to injure those who injure us, where and when does injury end?

Stand-your-ground laws truly do work – but only if the person using it is justified in using deadly force. If not, the person shot by an improper exercise of the law cannot be brought back to life. Worse yet, a truly crafty criminal could easily exploit the “law” by luring innocent persons into a staged shooting.

This means that in order to uphold the law, citizens must at all times always have the right intentions and a perfect perception of threats – a virtual impossibility. Even the Fifth Amendment - which libertarians and conservatives alike highly esteem - says no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

The Department of Justice investigation of the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident led FBI policymakers to conclude that the Constitution did not permit agents to unilaterally classify persons as fair game for deadly force without making careful evaluation of a threat a suspect poses - even when that evaluation must occur in a split second. If law enforcement cannot use the law to mark armed suspects as fair game, how much less an average citizen?

The purpose of the stand-your-ground law is to stop violent crimes, but as with all laws, it only punishes violence with violence. No universality of firearms ownership or 50-state adoption of stand-your-ground can abolish human fear or human evil.

The problem is not whether one has the right to carry a gun or shoot at a perceived threat. The problem is that Americans now hate and suspect each other so much in the 21st century that they feel the use of force is the first and only solution. That’s a heart problem, not a law problem.

If more laws mean more “reforms” shouldn’t the law reform us as a people? Righteous citizens make a righteous nation, not more laws.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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