A new Republican bill would essentially “make murder legal” in Missouri

Under S.B.666, people could claim they killed someone in self-defense — and not have to prove it in court.

People watch guns at the Top Gun shop in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, on 21 January 2019. The decree ...
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During the trial for the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, lawyers for the defendants argued that their clients had acted in self-defense when they chased, shot, and killed the unarmed jogger in a residential neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia. Their argument was unsuccessful and each man received a life sentence for the crime. But under a new law being considered in Missouri, those same men would likely have walked free, no longer burdened with having to prove that they’d feared for their lives when they ran Arbery down in a pickup truck before opening fire on him.

The Presumption of Reasonableness bill — aptly numbered S.B.666 — has been dubbed the “Make Murder Legal Act” by a cadre law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, like Stoddard County Attorney Russ Oliver. Speaking recently to Missouri’s Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety Committee, Oliver predicted that shifting the onus of proving self-defense from the defendants to the state “would absolutely create chaos.”

“It would automatically have the presumption of self-defense in every single assault, every single murder,” he added.

Even in the anodyne legalese of proposed legislation, S.B. 666’s language is striking. “This act provides that a person who uses or threatens to use force in self-defense is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force,” unless used against police and other law enforcement officials, it explains. Furthermore, “a law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use or threatened use of force, but the agency may not arrest the person for using or threatening to use force unless the agency determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used or threatened was unlawful.”

Put simply, the bill would make it exponentially more difficult to not only convict, but simply arrest anyone suspected of violence, so long as that person claimed self-defense — an assertion they themselves would no longer have to prove. In cases without witnesses, for example, that presumption of self-defense would make it nearly impossible to secure a conviction, because there would be no one alive to give the prosecution the legal traction to pursue a case by refuting a killer’s claim of self-defense.

Missouri state Sen. Eric Burlison (R), who introduced the bill, has claimed his proposal simply buttresses the state’s existing “castle doctrine” — the laws that allow homeowners to respond to perceived threats with deadly force. (Incidentally, this is the same law that attorneys attempted to apply to Kenneth Walker, boyfriend of Breonna Taylor, in order to justify his opening fire on the unidentified police officers who entered Taylor’s home executing a “no-knock” warrant. Taylor was shot and killed by police in the ensuing gunfight.)

“There are those who would seek to prosecute law-abiding Missourians whose only ‘crime’ is they were trying to defend themselves and or their family members,” Burlison told the Columbia Missourian on Tuesday.

Speaking at the committee hearing on the bill this week, Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. put the proposed legislation in much starker terms, calling it “fundamentally the most anti-humanitarian piece of legislation that I have ever read to legalize murder.” Joining Chapel in speaking out against the bill was an odd spectrum of bedfellows, including faith leaders from multiple Christian and Jewish communities, prosecutors, law enforcement organizations, and gun control advocates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, one major advocate for the bill was none other than GOP Senate candidate Mark McCloskey, one half of the infamous “St. Louis Gun Couple” who waved an assault-style rifle at social justice protesters from the lawn of his mansion in June 2020, claiming he and his wife feared for their lives despite zero evidence to support that assertion.

“If you’re doing nothing more than defending yourself, if you’re exercising your Second Amendment rights to self-defense, your God-given rights to protect yourself, you should not be prosecuted and have to defend yourself,” McCloskey testified at the hearing, presumably imagining an alternate timeline in which he and his wife had mowed down the protesters walking past their house without suffering a single legal consequence.

This past fall, researchers concluded that in 2020, Missouri had the third-highest per-capita rates of gun violence in the entire country.