Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Laws we could do without

This week John G. Lawrence, who involuntarily lent his name the Supreme Court decision that legalized consensual, private gay sex in 2003, died privately as he had lived. Lawrence and his friend Tyron Garner had their bedroom invaded by Texas police and were dragged off to the station in their underwear to be convicted of the misdemeanor sodomy in 1998. According the Lawrence's obituary, Lawrence was not an activist, just pissed off at how he was treated. His name ended up on the decision that legalized the ordinary lives of LGBT people.

A significant fact about this landmark case seldom mentioned then or even now is obvious in this picture of Garner and Lawrence celebrating the Supreme Court decision with a supporter. Would Texas police have invoked the sodomy law if the couple had been of the same race? There's no way to know, but in 1998 prosecutions for "sodomy" were already few and far between.

The obituary quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in the case:

The U.S. Constitution's framers "knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress," Kennedy wrote.

That got me to thinking -- what current laws will look to future generations as no longer "necessary and proper," but instead wrong-headed and oppressive? Naturally my nominations reflect my politics and I may be oblivious to some possibilities, but here's what came to mind:
  • Criminalization of small quantities of recreational drugs. Legalizing marijuana is not my cause, but prohibition has failed. There must be a better approach to the reality that some people don't seem to be able to use drugs responsibly than a bloated prison system and enriching illegal drug dealers.
  • Powerful guns in the hands of private citizens. Target shooting and hunting are sports, but no ordinary individual needs to own automatic weapons whose only function is to kill other humans. Law enforcement would have less justification for its heavy armament and tank vehicles if there were less high-powered weaponry floating around. A New York Times article this morning points out that "typical permit holder — middle-age white men — are not usually major drivers of violent crime." Did they ask any women who they feared with guns? I wouldn't be surprised if "middle-age white men" weren't right up there among those feared.
  • The many private property rights that currently trump protection of the environment. Our cavalier attitude -- if we own it, we can do what we like with it -- is an artifact of a resource rich and sparsely inhabited planet that no longer exists. Law is going to have to enforce responsibility on individuals to protect the commons. If we can't find a way to do that, our societies will perish.
  • The death penalty. People who commit horrendous offenses must suffer punishment to make society whole, but we can stop ordering their deaths as retribution. State killing fails in its objectives; few find closure, no good thing is created, at great cost and social trauma. Let's stop doing it.
What suggestions for conventional yet wrong-headed laws come to mind for readers?

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