A Minnesota man has been charged with second-degree murder in a case that is raising eyebrows and blood pressure here in the Evergreen State – as reader comments in Tuesday morning’s Seattle Times reveal – because he fatally shot two unarmed teenage burglars in what does not appear to be a case of self-defense.
It is important for Washington gun owners to pay attention because the Minnesota case clearly explains why armed citizens should understand this state’s use-of-force and lethal force statutes. Our good friends at Northwest Firearms are already having a spirited discussion about it here.
According to the Associated Press account published by the Seattle Times, Byron David Smith, 64, was in the basement of his Little Falls home when he heard glass breaking upstairs. He armed himself with a semiautomatic rifle and a .22-caliber revolver.
The report says 17-year-old Nicholas Brady was shot when his lower half became visible on the basement stairs. After he tumbled to the floor, Smith reportedly finished him off with a bullet in the face.
A few minutes later, Brady’s 18-year-old cousin, Haile Kifer, also came down the stairs. When she was visible from the waist down, Smith shot her as well with the rifle until it jammed, and then used the handgun to shoot her several times in the chest after he reportedly heard her elicit a laugh. He dragged her body and placed it next to Brady’s in his basement workshop, then placed the muzzle of the revolver under her chin and put one more round upward into her brain.
Then he waited until Friday to call the sheriff, the story said, because he did not want to bother the authorities on Thanksgiving.
Reaction from some Seattle Times readers is stunning and in a couple of cases, visceral. A few people obviously have no sympathy for burglars who get shot. At least one person understands the difference between self-defense and overkill.
In Minnesota, as in Washington, people may use lethal force if there is a genuine fear of imminent danger of grave bodily harm or death. The generic term for this is the “reasonable man doctrine,” because it reflects what any reasonable person would do under the same circumstances, knowing what you knew at the time.
UPDATE: This column’s good friend, Minnesota attorney David Gross, reminded us via e-mail about his state’s “defense of dwelling” statute. Here is the text he supplied:
“609.065 JUSTIFIABLE TAKING OF LIFE. The intentional taking of the life of another is not authorized by section 609.06, except when necessary in resisting or preventing an offense which the actor reasonably believes exposes the actor or another to great bodily harm or death, or preventing the commission of a felony in the actor’s place of abode. (History: 1963 c 753 art 1 s 609.065; 1978 c 736 s 1; 1986 c 444)”
However, this case opens a Pandora’s Box of trouble for homeowner Smith. Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel is quoted delivering a matter-of-fact explanation about where one crosses the line.
“The law,” he said, “doesn’t permit you to execute somebody once a threat is gone.”
Smith allegedly told an investigator that he shot Brady in the face because “I want him dead.” He allegedly explained the final round into Kifer’s head as “a good clean finishing shot.”
A couple of Times readers properly observed that people should not break into other people’s homes, because there is a clear risk of getting shot. As this column noted yesterday, a remarkable number of Americans have been buying guns at a record pace lately, so the odds are going up exponentially that burglars just might face an armed homeowner.
With more than 8 million Americans licensed to carry, including more than 384,000 Washingtonians, the chance of picking the wrong victim to rob on the street or in a parking lot has also gone up in recent years.
A lot of people have purchased firearms in recent years for personal and home protection. There is a concern about possible gun control measures under the second Obama administration, but there appears to be a greater concern that police cannot be there when they are needed. As the saying goes, “When seconds count, police are minutes away.”
A while back, this writer authored a book about that phenomenon with Alan Gottlieb. America Fights Back: Armed Self-Defense in a Violent Age struck the right chord, or the raw nerve, of readers. But it did not advocate finishing off someone who has already been shot and effectively taken out of a fight. The temptation may be there, but the law is clearly somewhere else.
If homeowner Smith did what the story says he did, and he is convicted, he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. What happened in Minnesota last Thursday is not going to stop residential burglaries, although it may give some would-be burglars cause to reconsider their career choices.
The case should also give a strong hint to homeowners about when to shoot and when to stop, and what not to say to the policeman who comes to investigate the mess.
Washington State Gun Rights and Responsibilities
America Fights Back: Armed Self-Defense in a Violent Age
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