The recent incident in Little Falls, Minnesota, in which two teenagers apparently broke into a man’s house and were subsequently shot by the home owner, brings into sharp focus the issue of what constitutes legitimate self defense. The story first broke just after Thanksgiving:
As a longtime firearm instructor and gun rights activist I am constantly amazed at the lack of understanding by the average person of just what constitutes self defense. More importantly, they seem particularly naive about the complex, and often subjective, process by which any self defense case is likely to be judged. Ask any number of your friends the following question: “When can you use deadly force to protect yourself?”
By and large you will get answers that are all too brief, all too simplistic, and more often than not, all too wrong. Typical responses will be “if you’re in fear for your life” or “if someone’s in your house, you can shoot ’em.” The number of people who think that just because someone is in their house, that they can blast away willy-nilly with impunity is simply staggering.
And if you question them further, you will likely get some variation on the usual litany of urban myths, almost invariably the result of what some vague many-times-removed third party supposedly told them: “My brother-in-law’s uncle is a cop and he says….” Among the more popular myths, the “just shoot ’em on the front porch and drag ’em inside” is one of the most common, followed by some gross misinterpretation of “Castle Doctrine” law.
But self defense is anything but simple. It is one of the most difficult cases for any criminal defense lawyer to win – just ask them. In an article in “The Champion” (the magazine of the American Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) the author warns very clearly: “A self-defense case is fundamentally different from most other criminal prosecutions,” and that “the defense attorney has a great deal of work to do in order to convince the jurors that the client’s conduct fell within the common law of self-defense or within applicable state statutes.” The article goes on to delve into all of the technical, physical, psychological, and even emotional issues that come into play.
In the classes that I teach to people who wish to apply for a Minnesota Permit to Carry a Pistol, I spend several hours just explaining all of the pitfalls that will confront anyone who threatens, or uses, deadly force in self defense. And in each case, the students are stunned at the complexity, and the uncertainty, of what will happen should they ever find themselves in a threatening situation.
When the Little Falls incident occurred, the knee-jerk responses fell into two camps: those who were ready to lynch the homeowner for killing “two unarmed teenagers” and those who were quick to point out that the two “kids” had intentionally broken into someone’s home, and therefore, “deserved what they got.” But what this case illustrates is that in many such incidents, neither party is totally innocent.
The homeowner, by his own admission, has admitted to shooting the teenagers in a fashion that even the most die-hard supporters of gun rights (like myself) have a hard time justifying as self-defense. And the two young people now appear to be far less innocent than previously thought, having been apparently involved in other home break-ins prior to the one which ended in their deaths:
I have long advocated that courses on self defense similar to what I teach be made part of every high school curriculum in the nation, certainly by the end of Senior year. After all, upon graduation, most people are either 18 years of age, or will be soon thereafter. Then consider that the most significant, most profound, and most life altering thing a person will ever do is to take the life of another human being. Yet 99.9% of them do not have a clue as to what constitutes lawful self defense, let alone the nightmare that will follow even a legitimate use of deadly force.
The Little Falls case will run its course, and the full story will likely take some time to fully emerge. But regardless of the end result of this particular incident, it is simply unconscionable that we continue to allow the vast majority of the populace (including most newscasters and journalists) to continue in their ignorance of the responsibilities, and the enormous risks, involved in the lawful use of lethal force.
It is also a tragedy that we apparently have parents who have not instilled in their children the obvious lesson that committing a criminal act, especially one as obviously risk-laden as breaking into someone’s house, can get a person killed. Perhaps this horrible case can at least serve as a “teachable moment” for concerned parents everywhere.
We can only hope.