This Wednesday, July 17, Vancouver man Jeffery Barton pleaded not guilty to one count of illegally aiming or discharging a firearm. Barton claims he fired his shotgun to scare away people who he thought were breaking into his vehicles. The story seems to be linked to a high-school drinking party that was allegedly taking place that night in the neighborhood.
To CNN affiliate KOIN, however, Barton also added that "I did what Joe Biden told me to do. I went outside and fired my shotgun in the air." Barton's rationale traces back to a statement made by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during an online question-and-answer session this February, where he said: "As I told my wife (...) Jill, if there's ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony here or walk out, put that double barreled shotgun, and fire two blasts outside the house. I promise you who ever's coming in is not going — you don't need an AR-15, it's harder to aim, it's harder to use, and, in fact, you don't need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun."
Philosophically, Barton's case resembles a rather comical and unfortunate tragedy. The U.S. vice president is a figure of high authority, and it would make sense that any remark he makes has the power to influence individual citizens' actions, as was allegedly the case here. Nevertheless, the legal reality is completely different. Legally, Barton is under the jurisdiction of Washington state law; and the law clearly states that citizens in Washington do not have the right to discharge a firearm "in any place where any person might be endangered thereby," unless they are in a life-threatening self-defense situation. This was not the case here. Barton will thus have to make a convincing case that a reasonable person listening to Biden's statement would have been so influenced by it so as to think that it gave him or her the legal right to override Washington state law. It is not much to go with, especially given the broader context of the vice president's remark: he was speaking mainly against the ownership of semi-automatic weapons, not giving explicit shotgun-using advice.
In the end, I see little hope in Barton's defense case. His actions were in clear violation of Washington state law, and therefore he is only left with Joe Biden's statement to defend himself with. And it is not yet under the power of the vice president to change statutory law by way of a statement made in an online question-and-answer session.