July 10, 2015 04:52 PM

Fontenot, background, and Rubin
State District Judge Ed Rubin blazed a trail last year when he expanded a ruling on whether a lesbian could legally adopt her spouse’s biological child, choosing to also find Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. It was a ruling that demonstrated courage, not to mention foresight, as the ruling was vindicated on June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state bans on same-sex unions violate the Constitution. Rubin was the only district court judge in the state to make such a bold statement, taking what would have otherwise been a narrow legal issue and expanding it to address a broader cultural question. We applauded him at the time and we applaud him today.

But Rubin squandered an opportunity in his sentencing of convicted killer Seth Fontenot — an opportunity to speak to broader cultural issues that make America unique in the industrial world: our readiness to kill with guns, the ghastly prevalence of firearm deaths, why we’ve allowed the gun lobby to so pervert our understanding of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, and why our elected leaders are so embarrassingly sheepish in the face of the National Rifle Association.

Based on testimony presented at his trial and on the many pre-sentencing letters sent to Rubin urging leniency, Seth Fontenot is a conscientious, studious, hard-working college student who genuinely, deeply regrets about 30 seconds of impulsive behavior on Feb. 10, 2013. He was a teenager (18) on that date, and indeed teens are notoriously and often tragically impulsive. But that impulsivity killed a 15-year-old boy, Austin Rivault, and wounded two of his friends. That Fontenot might spend as few as four months and as many as 13 months behind bars for killing Rivault strikes us as a miscarriage of justice, a slap to the face of Rivault’s family and a tacit endorsement of America’s insane gun culture.

Just today, Barna Haynes, secretary to former District Attorney Mike Harson, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for her role in that infamous scheme in which defendants, most of them OWI offenders, paid bribes for favorable outcomes to their cases. Eighteen months. Seth Fontenot kills a boy, and he will probably serve half as much. Let that sink in.

This paper has asked before, and Rubin could and should have asked it Wednesday — and answered it with a sentence more commensurate with the severity of Fontenot’s crime — why Fontenot (and so many of his fellow Americans) ever believed that a firearm was necessary to protect his belongings. The truck in which Rivault and his friends were riding when they were shot by Fontenot was accelerating away. Fontenot wasn’t in mortal danger. He obtained the gun after prior break-ins of his truck. He somehow believed that a gun was the proper way to protect his possessions — that his possessions were as valuable as a life. This is baffling to say the least, if not maddening in its depraved logic. Moreover, Fontenot’s choice of hollow-point bullets, which are designed to produce the maximum amount of the damage to human flesh, is at least perplexing. But, sadly, this is the American way.

Consider one of the letters sent to Rubin by a south-side resident who recounted a case of property vandalism similar to what prompted Fontenot to buy a gun in the first place:

My family members were all asleep and some time between midnight and 1 a.m. we were awoke [sic] by a ringing of the doorbell. This is very unusual for my household as we do not get visitors at that time of the morning. The ringing was not just a “press the doorbell button once and wait,” it was a “quick repetitive pressing of the button (ding ding ding ding),” which I took as very aggressive in nature. I grabbed my handgun and told my wife and kids to stay in their rooms while I investigated the situation.

... As I was making my way through the house and checking, the doorbell goes off again. This time even more aggressively and rapidly (ding ding ding ding ding ding), until the doorbell was stuck permanently. At this point, I knew that we certainly had a situation and my mind is racing as I feel like my safety and that of my family is being threatened by someone outside my home. ... I told my wife to call 911 immediately and slowly made my way to the front door, with gun in hand, a round in the chamber and ready to protect myself and my family.

So the man’s doorbell rings in the wee hours in a manner that most of us would probably reasonably perceive, especially after finding no one at the door, to be a teenage prank. (It turns out that it was a teenage prank; the letter implicated one of the surviving teens from the Fontenot shooting in the property crime detailed in the letter — a vandalism that occurred more than 18 months after Rivault was killed.) But the letter writer’s immediate response upon hearing the doorbell is to grab a gun. Is that not strange, macabre?

America has the highest rate of gun ownership in the developed world. And Americans are about 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than citizens in those other countries. Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 — Austin Rivault — are more than 42 times more likely to die by firearm than their peers in other industrial nations, all according to a Politifact review of analyses by The Washington Post and others last year. It bears mentioning that America also has the most permissive gun laws in the Western world.

A staff member from The IND was in the courtroom Wednesday when Rubin sentenced Fontenot. Our reporter heard no mention from the judge of the broader issue of firearms and our culture’s readiness to use them — just a sentence of three years with all but 13 months suspended. Just that.

Fontenot faced up to 40 years in prison. We — and, we believe, most reasonable people outside Rivault’s family and friends — don’t believe he deserved anywhere near that. But a year or less? For killing another person? Judge Rubin could have made the sentencing of Seth Fontenot about the broader issue of gun culture in our society. And he could and should have done that by imposing a sentence of at least five years, which is what one of the jurors who wrote Rubin begging his leniency thought appropriate.

As with his ruling in the gay adoption case last year, Rubin could have posed a broader question. It’s one we need to ask. And one we need to answer.


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