Sure, it’s a great soundbite to talk about whether Louisiana’s “Stand Your Ground” statute granted Ronald Gasser permission to fatally shoot Joe McKnight after an argument supposedly sparked by road rage. He’s now been charged with manslaughter, and plans to say it was all self-defense. But such a discussion intentionally and colossally misses a far more important question –whether Gasser would have been justified in using any self-defense in any manner at the time of the shooting. Gasser’s guilt doesn’t turn on gun laws, or the castle doctrine, or any other legal quirk; it turns on the straightforward facts that underlie the basic concept of murder. The only question worth asking right now is, “did Gasser overreact, or did he really think McKnight was going to hurt him?” And right there, in that simple inquiry, lies the difference between murder and a merely unfortunate fatality.
Let’s get some criminal law basics straight. Self-defense can be a valid defense to charges of a number of violent crimes. It is not a stand-alone right – it is a defense, just like other defenses such as privilege, consent, and exceeding statutes of limitation. Self-defense is the defensive “pong” to the “ping” of criminal charges of assault, battery, and sometimes, even murder.
Different states have different self-defense laws, but they all share an important commonality: the requirement that a person asserting self-defense must reasonably believe that he or she needed to act in order to avoid harm. Other aspects relating to self-defense differ from state to state; one such difference is about the timing of the alleged “self-defensive” actions. Some states only permit a person to use self-defense if that person first attempts to escape the danger prior to using defensive violence; such a rule is known as a “duty to retreat.” Other states allow a person to use force to defend his or herself immediately upon the formation of a belief that he or she is in imminent danger of being harmed; those laws are referred to as “Stand Your Ground” laws. It’s worth noting that “Stand Your Ground” laws are relatively new and often controversial developments in criminal law. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina have all adopted these statutes. Opponents of “Stand Your Ground” laws point to their disparate impact on racial minorities and an overall increase in gun violence, while proponents praise the laws for discouraging burglaries and other invasive violent crimes.
There are also more than just two variations of self-defense laws. Some states impose a duty to retreat before the use of any level of force, while others impose one only before the use of deadly force. Most states eliminate a duty to retreat if the would-be criminal defendant was in his or her own home at the time of the confrontation. And to make it even more complex, some states require that a criminal defendant be correct in his or her perception of imminent danger while others only require that the perception be reasonable.
Louisiana’s self-defense law includes the following provision:
“20. Justifiable homicide When committed by a person lawfully inside a dwelling, a place of business, or a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1(40) when the conflict began, against a person who is attempting to make an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, or who has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, and the person committing the homicide reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the entry or to compel the intruder to leave the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle.”
Under that statute, Gasser’s shooting could be deemed “justifiable homicide” (i.e., not “murder”) if he “reasonably believed” that deadly force was necessary from preventing McKnight from getting into his car. Only once we have figured out whether Gasser could have been justified in using a deadly-force level of self-defense would it then be relevant to determine whether he should have driven away first before doing so.
Debates over whether Gasser should have driven away in his vehicle before using a firearm to protect himself obliterate the far more pressing concern of the seeming absurdity of Gasser’s needing self-defense at all. News outlets have all described an incident of “road rage.” An eyewitness describes seeing an argument in which one man was yelling, another was attempting to apologize, and the yelling man shot the other man several times.
The facts reported don’t begin to paint the picture of a scene that would justify the use of deadly force. Of course, it’s possible that Ronald Gasser will come up with a string of his own witnesses who will testify otherwise; but for now, this sounds a lot like what always happens when there is too much rage, too many guns, and too little self-control. “Stand Your Ground” laws certainly don’t help, because they contribute to the erroneous and irresponsible belief that violence is justified in far more situations than it actually is. But for now, if we’re going to pick apart the many disturbing aspects of the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, let’s not get diverted by talking about laws that are largely irrelevant.
[Screengrab via Today Show]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.