Thanks in large part to recent events in Sanford, Florida, the terms "Stand your Ground" and "Castle-Doctrine" have become buzzwords for news stories all across the nation.
It seems that every time there is a self-defense shooting in the United States, writers and editors are quick to pull out the Castle-Doctrine ruler and see if the case measures up.
As with most pop-culture media drives, the more a topic is discussed, the less people seem to understand it. Ask the average person on the street to explain the meaning of "Stand your Ground" or the "Castle-Doctrine" and some will go so far as to tell you the rules give a person license to kill anyone who makes them afraid or nervous, all without consequences.
Some opportunistic anti-gun politicians have used controversial events to try and push for the repeal of "Stand your Ground" statutes, claiming that they promote murder as opposed to saving the life of the innocent.
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Other lawmakers, such as Missouri State Rep. Randy Dunn, have even gone so far as to propose bills that would require the victim of an attack to attempt or demonstrate an attempt to retreat before they could lawfully use a firearm to defend themselves.
Yet another high profile self-defense shooting incident has come to the attention of the national media. In Little Falls, Minnesota a retiree, Byron Smith, 65, is on trial for premeditated murder after a shooting incident at his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
Smith, the victim of previous break-ins at his home, had armed himself and, in a truly bizarre fashion, had set up recording devices to capture the audio of intruders. On the day in question, Smith used his gun to kill two home invaders; Nick Brady, 17, and Halie Kifer, 18.
In a normal world, when a frightened, elderly homeowner uses a firearm to stop two teenage home invaders from robbing them, the community has a tendency to rally around the victim of the crime. The actions Smith took after he pulled the trigger have all but assured that no member of the Little Falls Community will be rallying to his cause.
A stunned and silent courtroom sat and listened to the audio of Smith firing his gun at Brady and then stating “You’re dead” after the sound of the teen hitting the floor. The next sounds seemed to come straight out of a Hollywood psycho film as Smith moved Brady’s body to a tarp and groaned as he moved it to a work shop to “keep the blood from staining the carpet.”
Byron Smith, left, leaves a Morrison County courtroom in Little Falls, Minn., Monday, April 21, 2014, during a break in his trial. Smith, 65, shot and killed two teenagers who broke into his house on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Jurors began the process of deciding whether the killings were justified or whether the homeowner committed murder. He faces two counts of premeditated first-degree murder for the killings of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nick Brady, 17.(AP Photo/St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter)
Kifer came looking for her accomplice and was shot. The recording captured the sound of her body hitting the floor and then Smith saying “Oh, sorry about that.” There were more gun shots and Smith is heard to say “You’re dying” followed by a derogatory name for a woman. Then there was more dragging noise and a final gunshot.
At present, in the United States of America, there are more gun owners than at any time in our history. Of first time gun owners, the vast majority stated the reason for their purchase was either “home defense” or “self-defense.” Of these millions of firearms owners, how many of them truly understand what is required of a citizen in a justifiable self-defense shooting?
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of firearms owners, their training goes no farther than the television or movie screen. Having watched hundreds, if not thousands, of cop dramas or action movies, new gun owners fall into the trap of thinking that Hollywood fiction somehow translates to the real world.
In the firearms training world it has been said that anyone can teach you “how” to shoot. Some instructors will teach you “when” to shoot. However, almost no one talks about the “what now” of a lethal force incident. It is the “what now” part of the equation that can turn a justifiable shooting into a murder charge.
The investigation that follows any lethal force incident will focus on three very important questions. Did the person on the receiving end of the deadly force have the “ability” to do lethal harm to the first party? Did said party have the “opportunity” to do lethal harm? And lastly, but most importantly, did the person demonstrate “intent” to use lethal force?
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In short, the justifiable deadly force checklist must include ability, opportunity, and intent on the part of the attacker. Without all three components it is not possible to demonstrate a justifiable use of deadly force.
During the previously discussed Smith case, we have a home owner who is aged and alone versus two young and presumably physically fit attackers. Two young people against one old person is a disparity of force issue in favor of the home invaders. That checks off the “ability” box. The opportunity and intent factors were addressed when the two teenagers forced their way into someone’s home to commit an aggravated burglary (forcibly enter an occupied dwelling in order to commit a theft offense).
The train left the tracks the moment that Smith could no longer demonstrate “fear of death or serious bodily harm.” If Smith had shot Brady and then continued to seek cover from any criminal accomplices he would have remained within the law. Smith’s actions to move the body off of the carpet to prevent blood stains, in addition to being bizarre, does not appear consistent with a person in fear for their life.
The killing of Kifer could only be seen as justified, again, if Smith could testify to being in fear of his life from the second home invader. Smith’s comments after shooting Kifer, and then the follow up shots after Kifer had been heard to hit the floor, do not seem to support the claim of fear for one’s life.
What can be learned from the Little Falls, Minnesota incident? First and foremost, I would offer that any person arming themselves, especially for the first time, should seek out professional training.
Making it up as you go or relying on action movies as your guide are recipes for disaster. Deadly force is only justified if a person can claim fear of death or serious bodily harm from the attacker and the three point ability, opportunity, intent checklist is met.
When the person or persons attacking you cease to be a threat you must stop shooting. “Coup de grace” follow up shots will invariably turn a justifiable shooting into a murder charge.
Lastly, NEVER alter a crime scene. Any deliberate altering of a crime shooting scene that is not done for the purpose of self-defense or survival will be viewed as “tampering” or attempting to conceal the evidence of a crime. For the name of all that is holy, you can buy new carpeting.
For the past three decades Paul Markel has had the privilege to study with some of the finest instructors the U.S. Military and Law Enforcement world have to offer. Visit Student of the Gun.
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