A Montana man returned home on Wednesday and was confronted by a burglar.
Pursuant with Montana's castle doctrine law, also known as a Stand Your Ground law, the homeowner used a firearm he kept at his home to shoot the intruder once in the chest. The shot proved fatal as the intruder died fleeing the scene.
The case of this homeowner, who appears to have acted responsibly by calling the police and taking only one shot, will surely contribute to the national discussion of when Stand Your Ground laws are appropriate, and when they are instead used as a license to kill.
Regardless of whether investigators determine that the deceased, who has been linked to additional burglaries, was carrying a firearm, the castle doctrine provides the homeowner with certain protections and immunities allowing them to use force, including deadly force, to protect his home from an intruder "when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another." In 2009, Montana became the 21st state to pass similar measures backed by the National Rifle Association allowing a man to use deadly force in his home in self-defense without having to first attempt to flee or call the police.
In cases such as this one, castle laws appear to strengthen people's right to defend their homes. However, in some instances it appears that the castle law doctrine allows for excessive force and killing without consequences. In September 2012, Brice Harper of Montana shot Dan Fredenberg three times, fatally wounding him. Fredenberg had walked into Harper’s open garage door unarmed in order to confront Harper, who was romantically involved with his wife. Harper was not prosecuted because the county attorney determined he was justifiably acting in self-defense.
Defense attorneys in the case of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin considered using a similar defense to protect their client, George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the boy, allegedly in self-defense. The critical difference, however, is that Martin was killed on a street in Zimmerman's gated community and not in his home.
Each of these Stand Your Ground cases is helping refine the parameters under which the castle doctrine applies. For example, although Zimmerman will likely be denied protection under the doctrine, and Alabama woman who fatally shot a man while walking her dog on her street was protected under the castle doctrine law.
Although 36 states have some form of Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground law and each state legislature may define its parameters as it deems appropriate, given support for some sort of stricter gun control laws at a federal level, it is important that we consider these examples and engage in a national discussion as to how to best allow law-abiding citizens to protect their homes while minimizing gun crimes.