February 25, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Tennessee steps into our long history of vigilante justice

Lynching in the 21st century.


Share this article

This past week a bill was introduced in the Tennessee legislature that would make some gun owners members of law enforcement if they have an “enhanced handgun carry permit.” 

All it takes to get such a permit is a $100 fee and an eight-hour handgun safety course certificate. 

So basically, if you’re an adult who hasn’t committed a felony and have $100 and an extra eight hours, you too can be designated as law enforcement for the purposes of carrying a gun! 

The purpose of the law is to allow civilians to take concealed weapons into places only off-duty law enforcement currently can. The idea is so spectacularly bad that even police unions in Tennessee are opposing it. 

In reality, this bill is in a way a disturbing next step in a long history of condoning vigilantism in the United States.

We have romanticized the image of the Old West with cowboys defending themselves without needing to call law enforcement. This fits into the rugged individualism that many see as part of the unique American character. Even academics studying American history have often excused or justified vigilante violence.

Lynching has come to be associated with the racist violence in the post-Reconstruction south, but earlier in American history, lynching was an accepted part of vigilance committees and pioneer justice. 

We have romanticized the image of the Old West with cowboys defending themselves without needing to call law enforcement. This fits into the rugged individualism that many see as part of the unique American character. 

Even academics studying American history have often excused or justified vigilante violence. This argument is explained in Richard Maxwell Brown’s 1975 book called Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism.  

According to Brown, southern lynching is the “bad” model of lynching while western lynching is the “good” model. He asserted that western lynching is an example of a necessary part of the frontier with the consensus of the public to mete out punishment.

Western lynching as a model is exemplified by the Montana Vigilantes. The group lynched 26 people in 1864 and asserted that vigilantism and frontier justice were an important part of American identity. 

The Vigilantes claimed to be a necessary form of government in this early territory, imposing punishments on criminals and protecting the innocent people.  

While there was no formal legal system in Montana territory in the 1860s, there were local sheriffs and the community created miners courts. These were first established during the California gold rush and were meant to adjudicate civil mining claims and other property disputes. 

In Montana, these courts were also used to adjudicate criminal matters, such as a murder trial in 1862. 

The community in Alder Gulch, where the gold mining community was located, elected a sheriff named Henry Plummer as a local law enforcement agent in May, 1863, but he was eventually lynched himself by the Vigilantes. Plummer also appointed deputies and built gallows to be used in executions.

Brown argued that the vigilante movement in Montana was one of the most important in American history, and that it in fact helped to popularize the word “vigilante” in American English.  

According to Brown, the book, The Vigilantes of Montana, published two years after the committee disbanded, not only helped to spread the fame of the Montana vigilante movement, but it also was almost a textbook for the vigilante method to other frontier territories. 

Frederick Allen’s book called A Decent and Orderly Lynching, published in 2004, doesn’t go so far as to say any kind of lynching is “good” but he does argue the Vigilantes were acting according to their idea of duty. He spends much time discussing the state of crime and the lack of law enforcement prior to the Vigilantes. 

The men from the initial vigilance committee of the Montana Vigilantes not only became successful in Montana society, but are still revered as the founders of the state. Memorials and plaques were put up around Montana and in the state capital honoring the Montana Vigilantes and often included their ominous warning: 3-7-77

Along with being commemorated on plaques and gravestones of the Vigilantes, the numerical warning has also been on the shoulder patch of the uniforms of the Montana State Highway Patrol since 1956.

While we don’t have roving bands of vigilance committees meting out violent justice and escaping punishment today, we have seen an erosion of limitations on self-defense laws increasing support for individual vigilantism. 

Self defense is supposed to be a limited defense against the use of deadly force. When outside the home traditionally, a person had a “duty to retreat” in order to try to prevent the use of force and the fear had to be “reasonable.” 

Additionally, one was only justified in using deadly force to protect one’s home or person. Since 2005 28 states have passed “stand your ground laws,” which have removed the “duty to retreat” from self defense claims. 

Seventeen states have changed the “reasonableness” standard in order to place the burden of proof to the prosecution in self-defense cases rather than the defense. This requires the prosecution to disprove a claim of self defense in order to convict the defendant (Wisconsin’s law placing the burden of proof on the prosecution helped Kyle Rittenhouse get a not guilty verdict).

Self defense standards and support for vigilantism are deeply intertwined. Loosening self defense standards encourages people to take matters into their own hands rather than calling law enforcement or exhausting every option to de-escalate a situation before using deadly force. 

Of course, vigilantism, stand your ground laws and even Second Amendment rights in general only protect white men. When white women or people of color exercise these rights they tend to be arrested or worse shot by police. Studies also show that stand your ground laws, justified on public safety grounds, lead to more homicides

This proposed Tennessee bill to make civilians part of law enforcement so they can bring guns into more places is also justified on public safety grounds, but it is a clear recipe for disaster. 

The bill is predicated on the notion that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a “good guy with a gun,” but we know that idea is a myth that only leads to more people being killed. 

While the Tennessee bill hopefully will be vetoed, the destructive reliance on vigilantism in America continues to be supported. 

Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.