Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Morality Backed Up with a Gun

Some of my muttering at the newspaper lately has been about a Republican-proposed change to Minnesota's "castle doctrine." This is the state statute that makes it legal for you to kill someone who breaks into your home if you feel you or your family are in danger.

Our House and Senate Republican majorities want to change the law so that it applies not just inside your house but anywhere. You wouldn't have a duty to try and retreat to safety before using deadly force, and you wouldn't be held to a "reasonable person" standard either. The cases would hinge on the killer's state of mind, their subjective sense of what's reasonable. (See this op-ed by Dakota County prosecutor James Backstrom for more details.)

Jerry Dhennin of Coon Rapids had an excellent letter in today's Star Tribune, which said exactly what I have been thinking:

'Shoot first'
Supporters seem not to know existing law

Those writing letters in favor of the "shoot first" bill apparently haven't bothered to check out existing relevant law.

It is clear, in my opinion, that Minnesota statutes 609.06 and 609.065, taken together, authorize a person to use force, including deadly force, that is reasonably necessary to prevent an offense upon that person, or when assisting another.

Not written into these statutes is the requirement to first "retreat" from a confrontation if it is reasonable and safe to do so. Importantly, the requirement to retreat does not apply in one's home.

Minnesota's self-defense laws have worked very well for a long time. No one is in prison for acting reasonably in defense of one's self or home. There have been several cases in recent years of the use of deadly force by a person in defense of their home, and the defenders were not charged with any crime.

The bill proposed by Rep. Tony Cornish would seriously alter long-accepted standards of reasonableness, to the detriment of our citizens and the safety of law enforcement officers.

Our legislators would better serve if they paid heed to the positions of Minnesota's Police Chiefs, rank-and-file law enforcement officers and our state's County Attorney's Association, all of which adamantly oppose this bill.
Clearly this change in the law is meant to allow vigilantism, like the guy who shot and killed armed robber Darren Evanovich in South Minneapolis a few months ago. The shooter, who has not been identified, witnessed the robbery and pursued Evanovich, rather than retreating. According to the Star Tribune:
The witness, who had a permit to carry a handgun, drove up to Evanovich and asked for the purse back. Evanovich pointed his gun at the man and told him to mind his own business, and the man, still sitting in his car, aimed his own weapon and fired, according to a criminal complaint.
Prosecutors have decided not to charge the shooter, and that's under the current law. Clearly, there is no need for a change to make it even easier for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands. As Steven Pinker put it,
The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest (The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. 622).
Two updates: Former Champlin police chief Dale Kolb had a letter in the Strib a few days later in which he said: "Every three months I receive my NRA magazine in the mail, and I dutifully read the section about ordinary citizens who defend themselves with firearms.... As a cop, I always read them with our current law in mind. I have never read such an example that would not be allowed under our current law."

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Senate passed the revised castle doctrine bill on February 23 (the House had already passed it). The Strib story on its passage included this incredibly simple-minded quote from Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria):
"Why wouldn't we let citizens ... protect themselves wherever they are in the state of Minnesota?" asked Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff of Douglas County. "This bill is about good folks and giving them an opportunity to defend themselves."
Ingebrigtsen's inability or unwillingness to think of unintended consequences shows that he has no business working public policy.

I'm assuming Governor Dayton will veto the bill, but it wouldn't hurt to give him a call.

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