Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pondering the frontier mentality of the rural West, including the so-called castle doctrine

The New York Times reports in a front-page story today on the April 27, 2014 shooting death of a German high school exchange student in Missoula, Montana.  The 17-year-old was shot by a Missoula homeowner when the Diren Dede entered the man's garage to pilfer some beer.  Healy describes in detail the sequence of events:
Inside the house, motion sensors alerted Markus Kaarma, 29, to an intruder’s presence. Two recent burglaries had put Mr. Kaarma and his young family on edge, his lawyer said, and he grabbed a shotgun from the dining room and rushed outside. He aimed into the garage and, according to court documents, fired four blasts into the dark. Mr. Dede’s body crumpled to the floor. 
While Mr. Kaarma has been charged with deliberate homicide, Mr. Dede’s death has set off an outcry an ocean away in Germany, exposing the cultural gulf between a European nation that tightly restricts firearms and a gun-loving Western state. In his defense, Mr. Kaarma is expected to turn to laws enacted in Montana five years ago that allow residents more legal protections in using lethal force to defend their homes.
That last sentence of the quote refers to the state's "castle doctrine, which permits liberal defense of one's home.  On that matter, journalist Jack Healy quotes Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association as saying, “I think it’s working just fine.” Marbut rationalizes his answer by invoking the distance from law enforcement and other embodiments of the state that are often associated with rural living, and he also makes a rural-urban comparison: 
In times of emergency in Montana, Mr. Marbut said, the police are often an hour’s drive away. “Self-defense is a natural right. It is part of the nature of being a free person that your life has value and you can protect that life. It’s just not going to work to change Montana to a Chicago-style culture.”
This link between spatiality and self-reliance is a topic discussed in a new legal geographies collection, The Expanding Spaces of Law:  A Timely Legal Geography, which includes my chapter called "The Rural Lawscape:  Space Tames Law Tames Space."  That chapter theorizes the intersection of law and rural spatiality, including the link between the relative absence of legal actors and the "frontier" mentality of sparsely populated places like Montana.  The book will be published on May 28 by Stanford University Press.

Another post about Montana's castle law is here.  Another NYT story out of Montana about the "cultural security" represented by guns is here.

P.S.  A May 21, 2014 update on these events is here, from NPR's Martin Kaste.  Mr. Kaarma pleaded not guilty today.  The story includes this quote from State Rep. Krayton Kerns, the chief sponsor of the 2009 self-defense law:
Obviously, there's going to be moves to repeal it, but I think that's a reactionary thing.
Kerns opines, "[b]ased on news accounts … he does not think the law excuses the Diren Dede shooting."  Kaste further quotes Kerns: 
But repealing the castle doctrine, Kerns says, would give too much power back to prosecutors. "It removes the fundamental right of self-defense or the option of self-defense for the individual, and shifts it to government," Kerns says. "That's just not gonna work."
I don't think I quite understand the distinction Kerns is drawing since, under the invocation of the castle doctrine by Kaarma, a jury is going to have decide if Kaarma "reasonably believe[d] that force is necessary to prevent a forcible felony."  If the castle doctrine were not in place, a jury would still be called on to make a decision, most likely, about the reasonableness of Kaarma's belief.  That's how the law of self defense works, whether one is defending home or not.  

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