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Will the Ghost of Duncan Lemp Haunt Gun-Grabbing Politicians?

by | Mar 11, 2024

Will the Ghost of Duncan Lemp Haunt Gun-Grabbing Politicians?

by | Mar 11, 2024

twitter sized lemp & fbi logo

If you post a photo of a rifle on Instagram, tag it to your hometown, and add a caption like “green tip armor piercing gets the girls wet,” Maryland police can cite that to get a no-knock search warrant and kill you in a pre-dawn assault on your bedroom.

In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell warned, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” Duncan Lemp, the 21-year-old software programmer who posted the rifle photo I’ve just described, was shot three times without warning by a policeman standing outside a smashed-in window at 4:42 am. Lemp was laying on his bedroom floor, bleeding profusely and gasping for breath, his eyes open and terrified. Instead of offering first aid, a policeman came forward and placed his boot on Lemp’s throat. Lemp died a few minutes later.

As President Joe Biden campaigns for re-election by vilifying gun owners as “extremists,” new details are coming out about one of the most brazen and deadly cases of ideological targeting. The FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Symbols report lists “His name was Duncan Lemp” as a catchphrase among suspected extremists. Millions of Americans could face deadly perils from the government based on the same principle—ignorance of the law—that Maryland used to justify shooting Lemp.

Tomorrow will be the fourth anniversary of Lemp’s death. At 4:42 am on March 12, 2020, a Montgomery County, Maryland SWAT team arrived outside of the bedroom where Lemp slept next to his pregnant girlfriend in his parents’ house in affluent Potomac, Maryland. One team of SWAT cops used a battering ram to smash in the front door of the Lemp home while setting off flash-bang grenades. Simultaneously, another cop stepped up to a bedroom window, smashed it with a fireman’s pike tool, and pulled back the curtains. Two flash-bang grenades were thrown into the bedroom. Another police officer stepped up to the broken window with a rifle and quickly shot Lemp three times. An official report later noted that “other members of the SWAT team were tasked with deploying ‘flashbangs’ outside the residence to disorient the senses of the occupants of the house as to what was happening.”

Police justified the preemptive attack by falsely asserting that Lemp possessed an Israeli assault rifle prohibited under Maryland law. Police snared a no-knock warrant from a judge in part because Lemp had allegedly made “anti-government” and “anti-police” comments, according to confidential informants recruited by the police, and accused Lemp of being part of militia groups.

Lemp had no history of violence but was outspoken on social media about championing the Second Amendment. His last tweet declared:

Three months later, so was Lemp. Before he was killed, he had texted his mother that he might be targeted by police “because I exercise my constitutional rights.”

Police claimed that Lemp had grabbed his rifle just before they killed him. But citizens were obliged to take the police’s word since they made no video recordings of their assault. After Lemp was gunned down, a policeman did walk through the house videotaping the wreckage, including Lemp’s mother, Mercedes, sitting on her bed weeping inconsolably. Mercedes told me in 2021, “I will always wonder whether the police intended to kill Duncan from the start—there was never a search…the way they conducted themselves seems as if they intended to kill him even before the raid began.” Police never sought to question Lemp or his parents before shooting Duncan.

The county government refuses to reveal whether police ever considered any alternative to peacefully detain or arrest Lemp prior to attacking his bedroom. The cop who gunned down Lemp in his bedroom faced no charges. Why? Police are automatically absolved for killing people with ideas politicians disapprove. The legal doctrine of qualified immunity protects practically any cop not caught in the act of setting an orphanage on fire. Lemp’s fate confirmed the old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

The killing of Duncan Lemp should have been one of the biggest police outrages of 2020, but the media ignored it because the victim was a white, libertarian-leaning gun owner. But his death became a rallying cry for many Americans beyond the mainstream. The Washington Post sneered that Lemp had “become a beloved martyr” to “anti-government extremists around the country.”

Lemp’s death vivifies the perils of politicians pirouetting as saviors with idiotic new laws. President Biden is championing a federal ban on so-called assault weapons. But “assault weapon” is a political concoction rather than a specific type of firearm, and legal definitions are arbitrary and confusing. Maryland police killed Lemp after they saw an Instagram photo he posted of himself with a rifle, which they presumed was an Israeli rifle banned under Maryland’s assault weapon law. Nine months after Lemp perished in the no-knock attack, the county attorney issued a report which perfunctorily noted “that upon further review and investigation into the IWI Tavor X95 rifle, it was determined that it was not an assault rifle…It appears that Lemp’s rifle was a legal ‘copycat’ made to look exactly like the illegal version of the IWI Tavor X95. Very minute changes such as the overall length of the weapon can mean the difference between an illegal assault rifle and a legal one.”

But the non-banned weapon was close enough for government work to exonerate police for killing Lemp in his bedroom. The county government treated its fatal mistake like a paperwork error. (In July 2022, the Supreme Court effectively invalidated the Maryland assault weapons law.) Even the name of that report wreaked of weaselry and official deceit: “In the matter of the March 12, 2020 police-involved shooting in Potomac, Maryland.” It wasn’t simply a “police-involved shooting.” But will government officials ever explain why this should not be viewed as a targeted killing?

“Very minute changes” is the key to the assault weapons controversy. Tweaks to official regulations can convert millions of American gun owners into felons overnight. Assault weapons are a “flag of convenience” for politicians’ targeting the rights of gun owners. For decades, the controversy has resembled a circus shell game. Politicians talk about assault weapons as solely a moral issue—a question of pure evil—and then move the shell to forbid vast numbers of widely owned firearms.

Police have covered up almost all the details of their actions against Lemp, whose slaying was ignored by the same local Democratic politicians who rushed to condemn Minneapolis police for killing George Floyd. But truth may win out thanks to a federal lawsuit filed by the Lemp family charging local officials and police with civil rights violations. Court briefs filed by attorney Terrell Roberts have revealed a key element of the Lemp case that could endanger millions of other Americans.

Do police have the right to pre-emptively attack gun owners for failing to comply with laws they never knew existed? Police justified assailing Lemp because he allegedly violated a Maryland law that prohibits firearm possession until age 30 by anyone convicted of certain offenses as a juvenile. Lemp was convicted as a teenager for second-degree, non-residential burglary (which could have meant stealing pumpkins from a farmer’s barn). Lemp was unaware of the firearm prohibition attached to that law and was officially approved to purchase firearms by both Maryland and federal background checks. The same principle imperils legions of Americans thanks to recent arbitrary federal decrees involving bump stocks and pistol braces.

Duncan Lemp’s name continues to resonate as a rallying cry for Americans fearful that the government is out of control. The Biden administration admitted in 2021 that a “belief that the U.S. government is purposely exceeding its Constitutional authority” spurs many “domestic violent extremists.” But Biden and his liberal allies apparently believe that the problem can be solved by deluges of new laws and regulations that entitle officials to scourge people who distrust government.

Is any gun owner who carps about the police to confidential informants close enough for government work to being a domestic terrorist? If so, his killers deserve endless benefits of the legal doubt—the same enjoyed by the SWAT team that killed Lemp, right? Extremism won’t be vanquished by redoubling oppression of anyone with politically-disapproved ideas.

It remains to be seen whether Lemp was prophetic when he tweeted, “The Constitution is dead.”

Jim Bovard

Jim Bovard

Jim Bovard is a Senior Fellow for the Libertarian Institute and author of the newly published, Last Rights: The Death of American Liberty (2023). His other books include Public Policy Hooligan (2012), Attention Deficit Democracy (2006), Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994), and seven others. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Washington Post, among others. His articles have been publicly denounced by the chief of the FBI, the Postmaster General, the Secretary of HUD, and the heads of the DEA, FEMA, and EEOC and numerous federal agencies.

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