This is a subscriber-exclusive edition of The Third Rail, a weekly newsletter about the Constitution, culture, and the disputes that divide America. Sign up for the newsletter here, and subscribe to The Atlantic for access to more exclusives like this.
One of the most interesting and important questions of American law and culture is the clash between individual responsibility and systemic injustice. When do we chalk up negative outcomes to human agency, and when are negative outcomes baked into the cake by history, sociology, policy, or law?
At the risk of overgeneralizing, different answers to this question have traditionally represented a key dividing line between conservatives and progressives, with conservatives tending to err on the side of emphasizing individual choice and progressives emphasizing systemic effects.
Every now and then, however, the answer to the question of whether systems are to blame can become painfully clear, and in the instance of a specific, controversial police tactic, the evidence demands a verdict—while human agency is still relevant, American law has created a system that renders deadly gun battles between innocent American citizens and police officers exercising their lawful duties a near certainty.
I’m talking about no-knock raids. I’m raising the issue (again) because of the tragic police killing of Amir Locke. I highly recommend this summary of Locke’s case from Reason’s Billy Binion, but the facts are simple: On February 2, a Minneapolis SWAT team executed a no-knock warrant on a downtown apartment.
The no-knock raid was one of three launched as part of a homicide investigation. The police were looking for a suspected shooter. Locke was not the target of the raid. After the police used a key to open the door, they started shouting loudly that they were law enforcement, and an officer kicked a couch.
Locke was apparently sleeping on the couch, and he was obviously startled. Video of the shooting clearly shows that he was holding a gun. A police officer opened fire immediately upon sight of the gun, killing Locke, a lawful gun owner who reportedly possessed a concealed-carry permit.
If you’re looking at the human choices that contributed to Locke’s death, you question the decision to obtain a no-knock warrant, Locke’s decision to sleep with a gun, and the officer’s decision to open fire. At any point, individuals could have made a different choice, and Locke would likely be alive.
But when you zoom out just a bit, you’ll see a series of court cases that in the aggregate have placed two separate forces—armed police and armed citizens—on a collision course, and that collision course has resulted and will result in unnecessary and tragic deaths, of both civilians and police.