Good lawyering, bad PR

“MGM resorts sues victims of Las Vegas massacre”: the headlines sound downright dystopian, and the social media reaction is pretty much what you would expect.

But in context, the company’s move makes sense.

MGM, owners of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, are being sued for their alleged negligence in inadvertently providing a shooter’s nest for Stephen Paddock, who massacred dozens of people at a country music festival last October.   The company’s response is to seek a declaration in federal court that anti-terrorism legislation shields them from liability:

The company cites a 2002 federal act that extends liability protection to any company that uses “anti-terrorism” technology or services that can “help prevent and respond to mass violence.”

In this case, the company argues, the security vendor MGM hired for Route 91, Contemporary Services Corp., was protected from liability because its services had been certified by the Department of Homeland Security for “protecting against and responding to acts of mass injury and destruction.”

The lawsuits argue that this protection also extends to MGM, since MGM hired the security company.

They do not seek money from the victims but do ask that a judge decide if the 2002 act is applicable, and if so, determine that future civil lawsuits against the company are not viable.

Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for MGM Resorts, released a statement about the litigation Monday.

According to the statement, “The Federal Court is an appropriate venue for these cases and provides those affected with the opportunity for a timely resolution. Years of drawn out litigation and hearings are not in the best interest of victims, the community and those still healing.”

Is the company correct?  Beats me.  That’s for a U.S. Federal Court to decide.   But just because a company – even a company involved in the morally dubious business of gambling – is facing lawsuits from sympathetic defendants doesn’t meant they’re legally in the wrong.

It’s understandable if many Americans, who can’t seem to make any headway in fighting the gun lobby and curtailing their country’s firearms culture, want someone to be punished.  And maybe MGM does indeed bear some liability.  But they are entitled to press their case to the greatest extent allowed by law.

The T-word

In light of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, by a 64 year-old white man whose political or religious motivation, if any, remains unknown, I’ve seen much of this kind of thing on social media:

Because when you want a nuanced and informed discussion of legal issues and systemic racism, you turn to Twitter.

Huffpost explains why law enforcement officials are avoiding the T-word for the time being:

There’s a reason that law enforcement authorities are hesitant to label an attack like the one in Las Vegas as terrorism. Specific federal statutes target international terrorism and acts associated with groups that the U.S. government has labeled as foreign terrorist organizations. But there’s no specific federal statute aimed at acts of domestic terrorism, meaning acts inspired or carried out on behalf of domestic extremist organizations. Some federal laws are aimed at particular acts that might be carried out for terrorist purposes, like hijacking planes or assassinating government officials, but mass shootings are not on that list.

So had Stephen Paddock lived, it’s unlikely that he would have faced federal terrorism charges. And unless authorities turn up evidence that his attack was motivated by hatred for a specific racial group ― which is unlikely, given that he fired indiscriminately into a crowd of thousands ― there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have faced any federal charges at all.

[…]

…it’s not clear the Las Vegas massacre would qualify as an act of domestic terrorism. There is a federal definition of the term ― yes, even though there isn’t a charge. An act of domestic terrorism must be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence a government policy by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. We don’t know yet if Paddock had any of those goals in mind.

There is a Nevada state law which may define the Vegas massacre as terrorism, but not a federal one.  The ACLU, notably, is wary of what would actually be targeted by a specific law against “domestic terrorism”:

In the U.S., there’s still a great deal of reluctance to create a criminal charge of domestic terrorism.

“It’s an incredibly broad label,” Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR in August following the white nationalist rally car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“There’s a real danger of the government criminalizing ideology, theology and beliefs rather than focusing on specific criminal acts,” she said.

According to Shamsi, the ACLU opposes any such law, because it believes it infringes on free speech and religion and could be politicized and used against groups like anti-war groups or environmental activists.

Reason’s Ed Krayewski made a similar point after Charlottesville:

The FBI has specific legal criteria it uses to define international terrorism, domestic terrorism, and the federal crime of terrorism. To be terrorist, an act must appear to intend to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” The federal offense is defined as a criminal act “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”

In political rhetoric, by contrast, the word is frequently deployed as a thought-terminating cliché—a way to promote the idea that some military or police activity should be permitted to occur outside of the constraints of the Constitution, particularly against certain classes of people. In the last few decades, and particularly since 9/11, those classes of people have tended to be Muslim.

[…]

At the beginning of his term as attorney general, Holder sought to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue. This was the right instinct. Terrorists are criminals with political ideas, but they are still criminals. The term terrorism is used to strip those criminals—and many noncriminals—of longstanding legal protections. And its ultimate effect has been to make it politically harder to defend the idea of treating “terrorism” as a law enforcement issue, often while creating the space for even more terrorism.

The Shawn Kings of the world want the definition of “terrorism” to encompass more white guys, but they aren’t the only ones who will be caught up in the net.  They should be very careful what they wish for.