Sunday’s shooting of an unarmed teenager in a Missoula man’s garage has ignited a firestorm over Montana’s self-defense laws, specifically the state’s so-called “castle doctrine.”
In response, state Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, proposed legislation attempting to repeal parts of the Defense of an Occupied Structure statute that were added during the 2009 Legislature.
The legislation, House Bill 228, was backed by the National Rifle Association and expanded the circumstances under which deadly force can be used in self-defense.
Hill said she doesn’t have a problem with the Second Amendment or even the historic version of the castle doctrine, but takes issue with the “stand your ground” language added in 2009.
“What the castle doctrine has done in this country is it has created a culture of gun violence and vigilante justice,” Hill said. “And it’s created a culture that it’s OK to shoot first and ask questions later.”
What’s missing from the law is common sense, she said.
As it stands, the law allows the use of lethal force by an individual who “reasonably believes” the force will stop an intruder’s unlawful entry into an occupied structure.
Prior to 2009, a person could only use lethal force against an intruder if the assailant acted in a “violent, riotous, or tumultuous manner.”
Missoula attorney Paul Ryan, who is representing the man accused of shooting the teenager last weekend, plans to use the castle doctrine in his defense of Markus Kaarma. The Grant Creek resident has been charged with deliberate homicide.
Though Hill thinks the defense will come up short in court, she still sees a need to change state law.
“It certainly was in the shooter’s mind that he had a right to protect his castle,” Hill said.
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Diren Dede, a 17-year-old German exchange student attending Big Sky High School, was shot by Kaarma when he entered the man’s garage early Sunday morning. It remains unclear why Dede was in the garage.
Prosecutors allege Kaarma and his common-law wife, Janelle Pflager, intentionally baited would-be burglars by displaying a purse inside the garage and leaving the garage door half open.
According to the affidavit filed in support of the homicide charge, the couple had been burglarized several times in the past three weeks. The pair also set up a motion sensor and a baby monitor in an attempt to catch any burglars in the act.
Shortly after midnight, a motion sensor alerted the couple to Dede’s presence. Kaarma grabbed a gun from the dining room and exited the front door. He entered the garage through the open door and allegedly fired four shots into the dark – two of which hit Dede.
Local firearms expert and self-defense lobbyist Gary Marbut said he couldn’t specifically speak about the case, but disagreed with any attempt to repeal the Defense of an Occupied Structure statute.
“I think Ellie is just grandstanding,” he said. “She doesn’t know how things were and how things are made. It’s just convenient political grandstanding.”
Among the multitude of changes the 2009 legislation brought about, Marbut said, were revisions that allowed a structure’s resident to be presumed innocent when using lethal force to defend his or her property.
It also prohibited police from destroying confiscated guns and made it legal to inform another individual that you have a firearm on you, Marbut said.
He said they changed part of the law stating that an individual is authorized to use force to stop the intruder’s unlawful entry if the intruder was acting in a “violent, riotous, or tumultuous manner” because it was confusing.
“The problem with those words was no one could argue about them in court,” he said Wednesday. “That left gun owners who wanted to defend themselves not knowing what they could do.”