Law Blog

The Misinformation about Arizona Shooting Victim Judge John Roll

As you’ve probably heard, over the weekend, there was a tragic mass shooting in Arizona which killed 6 people. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, and remains in critical condition, though the latest reports as of the writing of this post suggest that, thankfully, her prognosis is rapidly improving.

Among the dead was U.S. District Judge John Roll.  Sadly, without much information to go on, the media have begun to speculate about the shooter’s motives, and pundits on both the right and the left are frantically trying to prove that Judge Roll belonged to the other political ideology. From what little information we do have about the shooter, it seems clear that his issues don’t have much to do with left/right politics, and that he’s simply a deeply disturbed individual, who has latched onto a number of fringe political positions, some of which could be construed as being on the extreme right, with others being on the extreme left.

Media pundits are also looking into some of Judge Roll’s more controversial judicial rulings, to see if those might have had anything to do with his death. However, it now appears that the shooter didn’t even know who Judge Roll was, and that the judge wasn’t even at the store where the shooting took place to attend Rep. Giffords’ campaign event – he was just there to shop.

I’ve noted in the past that violence against judges has become a problem in the United States, and it’s become part of the media narrative when discussing the divided nature of the American political scene. The fact is that, while crackpots have always threatened judges and politicians, only recently has this fact been regularly reported in the news, because it supports the “nation divided” narrative that the media has taken on. That might prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that’s another topic.

However, in the rare cases where a judge or politician is actually harmed, regardless of the perpetrator’s motive, speculation about the motive is inevitable, especially if the victim was particularly outspoken with controversial views.

In this case, Judge Roll was among the several U.S. District Court judges who found portions of the “Brady Bill” (a federal handgun control law) unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court eventually agreed with him. While finding part of a gun control law unconstitutional isn’t going to draw the ire of fanatical gun-nuts, some people are pointing out the irony of the fact that he ruled against a handgun control law, and was later killed by a handgun. Again, this appears to be nothing more than a coincidence, since it’s apparent that he wasn’t the target.

It’s unfortunate, however, that our first assumption when something like this happens is that it was motivated by politics or ideology, until proven otherwise. It almost gives the impression that violence against public officials (or threats of violence against them) is just par for the course. Whenever there’s a vote on a controversial issue in Congress (healthcare reform, for example), or a judge issues a controversial ruling, people seem to think “yep, there’s gonna be some death threats over this one!” as if it’s just a normal thing that we should expect to occur. I don’t think we have to accept such conduct as inevitable.

Even more unsettling is the “custody battle” that’s playing out between pundits on the left and the right – each side is desperate to characterize the shooter as a member of the other side. I guess this is a reverse custody battle. Why can’t people simply accept that the shooter was crazy? It’s like listening to conservatives argue that Hitler was a liberal, and liberals argue that he was conservative. Can’t people just accept that he was neither?

But, as I mentioned earlier, violence against judges because of their rulings is all too common in the U.S., even if the violence rarely amounts to more than threats or petty vandalism. And even though the murder of Judge Roll doesn’t appear to have been motivated by anything he did in his official capacity, it does underscore the need for better security for judicial officials, even though the focus is likely to be on increased security for members of Congress (which, don’t get me wrong, is also very important).

Maybe everyone in the country will take this tragedy as a wakeup call that the toxic political rhetoric to which we’ve come so accustomed needs to end. Even if it turns out that the shooter was in no way motivated by the current political climate (I find it unlikely that this was his sole, or even primary, motivation, but I find equally unlikely the notion that it was in no way a factor), the fact that everyone jumped to this conclusion is disturbing. But it’s not the idea itself that’s disturbing. Rather, it’s the fact that it doesn’t seem like a stretch.

The political climate has become so toxic that when someone says, without direct evidence to support it, “this mass-murder was probably motivated by the horrible political rhetoric we’ve been seeing over the last couple years,” pretty much everyone says “yeah, that seems pretty likely,” without even blinking. If that doesn’t serve as a wake-up call, I don’t know what will.