Wisconsin sheriff's warning: Arm yourself, we might not get there in time

A sheriff in Wisconsin has made a radio ad counseling residents to have a gun and know how to use it. He says it's a necessary warning, critics say it is irresponsible.

Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/AP/File
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke talks during a budget hearing in Milwaukee in this 2011 photo. The Wisconsin sheriff released an ad calling on residents to defend themselves, because the old model of having a citizen call 911 and wait for help isn't always the best option.

A top law-enforcement official in Wisconsin is telling gun owners that, when faced with a violent criminal in their home, they should no longer just rely on dialing 911, but should take matter into their own hands.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has attracted national attention by releasing a 30-second radio spot in which he tells the public they are needed “in the game” of personal protection.

“With officers laid-off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option. You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back; but are you prepared? Consider taking a certified safety course in handling a firearm so you can defend yourself until we get there. You have a duty to protect yourself and your family. We’re partners now,” he says.

Wisconsin has a “castle doctrine" law, which makes it legal for gun owners to kill or maim an intruder to their home. So Sheriff's Clarke plea has the force of law behind it. What makes his actions so unusual is the fact that he – as a sheriff – is essentially telling his citizens not to depend on the police.

“It’s highly irregular. Most law enforcement professionals will not encourage people to pick up their guns and engage in vigilante justice," says Randolph McLaughlin, a civil rights attorney in Manhattan and a professor at Pace University Law School. "What [Clarke] is saying is that ‘we in law enforcement are unable to protect you, so do what you need to do.’ It’s an extremely dangerous proposition to encourage citizens who have no law-enforcement training to use their weapons.”

The comments have resonance beyond Wisconsin. In all, 48 states have either a castle doctrine law or its variant – a "stand your ground" law that allows the use of deadly force outside one’s private property if a person feels threatened and cannot retreat – according to a 2012 study by Texas A&M University. Moreover, in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Clarke's comments play into the national conversation about how involved a community should be in arming and protecting itself.

Clarke first agreed to talk to the Monitor for this story Monday but subsequently declined, citing a busy schedule.

Clarke defended the spot Monday morning, telling Fox News that “personal safety is a personal responsibility.… The police are not omnipresent. We can't be there all the time and sometimes we can't be there as fast as we'd like.”

Many law-enforcement experts suggest that studies show smarter police strategies and technology are more effective in reducing crime than more cops on the street. A better way of soliciting the help of the public might be to encourage residents “to be the eyes and the ears of the police” so law enforcement can help determine where to place their resources, says Tod Burke, a former police officer in Maryland who now teaches criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.

He says Clarke’s campaign “could be a political ploy to make the statement he wants more police officers. I think arming citizens could possibly become a problem for police.”

Clarke has pushed for harsher sentencing guidelines and fewer restrictions on gun ownership since first being elected Milwaukee County sheriff in 2002. Last month, he called for the arming of teachers in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. He is current serving his third term.

Wisconsin’s castle doctrine law was signed in December 2011. States' castle doctrine laws vary. Some extend the right to deadly force beyond the home into a person’s place of business or vehicle, others grant the individual immunity from civil liability. But the majority of castle doctrine laws say individuals are justified using deadly force where they risk death or serious bodily harm, and the laws do not necessarily have to prove a retreat was impossible.

In Wisconsin, the person would be immune to both criminal and civil liability if he uses deadly force against an intruder in his home, business, or vehicle, regardless if the intruder is armed or not.

Pace's Professor McLaughlin says Clarke’s message “goes beyond” both laws. “To encourage individuals to use their firearms because the police are unable to protect them … it’s a breakdown in the social contract,” he says.

While the radio spot has generated expected responses by both anti-violence and gun-rights advocates, it has also reignited the ongoing beef Cooke has maintained with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Over the weekend, Mayor Barrett released a statement that criticized the spot, suggesting it promoted the kind of street vigilantism portrayed in a popular Clint Eastwood film franchise: “Apparently, Sheriff David Clarke is auditioning for the next 'Dirty Harry' movie,” the statement said.

Clarke has long criticized Barrett’s strategy for fighting crime and accused him of being in denial about the most effective methods to reduce gun violence. On Friday, Clarke released a statement that referenced a 2009 tire iron attack Barrett suffered after coming to the assistance of a woman outside the Wisconsin State Fair.

“I would think that [Barrett] would be a lot more sensitive to people being able to defend themselves in such instances. A firearm and a plan of defense would have come in handy for him that day,” Clarke said.

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