Ready to retreat 

Foolishly testing the limits of the state’s castle doctrine

On April 27, Markus Kaarma shot and killed German exchange student Diren Dede in his Grant Creek garage. Kaarma’s lawyer, Paul Ryan, has told the press that his client will plead not guilty to charges of deliberate homicide, citing Montana’s castle doctrine.

Maybe you heard about it. On first blush, Kaarma’s actions seem lamentable but reasonable. Dede broke into his home during the night and Kaarma shot him, fearing for his life. That it happened is unfortunate, even tragic, but a man’s home is his castle.

Like that old saw, though, the Kaarma case gets dumber the longer you think about it. And so does HB 228, the so-called castle doctrine law that Gary Marbut and the Montana Shooting Sports Association pushed through the state legislature in 2009.

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Before he shot Dede, Kaarma’s garage had been robbed twice. He and his wife often left the door open to smoke, he told police, and he had lost credit cards and a cellphone. According to Ryan, Kaarma “felt his family was being targeted by burglars who had become more sophisticated and bolder with every new invasion.”

A reasonable person might have fought this bold sophistication by closing his garage door. But Kaarma did not. He installed motion detectors and a video monitor and left the door open with his wife’s purse inside. He told his hairdresser that he was “waiting up nights to shoot some [fudging] kid.” A few days later, he saw Dede on the monitor and raked the darkened garage with shotgun fire, killing the teenager.

It was an act of premeditated self-defense, somehow. Kaarma said he feared for his family and property, but it seems his fear was outweighed by his desire for revenge. It’s not so much that he didn’t want to suffer any more burglaries. It’s that he wanted to suffer one more burglary, so he could kill the person who did it.

Kaarma is in trouble. He seems to have taken every conceivable step to undermine his own case, and to highlight the practical absurdity of the law that protects him.

The castle doctrine is a principle of common law, and it’s one most people agree with. It holds that the occupants of a structure have a right to defend that structure with force, including deadly force when they are reasonably afraid of death or serious bodily harm. If someone breaks into your house and attacks you, you can shoot him. It’s ugly, but it’s also common sense.

In 2009, Marbut convinced the legislature the castle doctrine needed to be explicit. The result was HB 228, which states “a person who is lawfully in a place or location and who is threatened with bodily injury or loss of life has no duty to retreat from a threat or summon law enforcement assistance prior to using force.”

Previously, the castle doctrine was understood to require people to try to escape threats or call police before they used deadly force. This principle is known as “duty to retreat,” and the 2009 law removed it. Now, you can legally shoot an intruder in your home even if you could have gone next door and called the police.

And why not? Why should you have to leave your house or lock yourself in the bathroom while a burglar goes through your stuff?

One possible reason is that you would rather not shoot someone. From a personal standpoint, I would rather lose my laptop and rare copy of a comic book in which Glenn Danzig and Henry Rollins are in love than live with the knowledge that I had killed another human being. And from a societal standpoint, maybe we don’t want the punishment for trespassing to be death.

The castle doctrine makes sense in theory, but in practice it empowers men like Kaarma while doing little to improve the rights of sensible people. It is a legal excuse that only a fool or a fiend would take.

The duty to retreat is not just a legal obligation; it’s a tactical one. Decent people who fear for their lives are advised not to engage in firefights indoors. In theory HB 228 protects decent people, but in practice it protects people like Kaarma.

Absolved of his duty to retreat, he did what he could to court trouble and then shot an unarmed teenager. If you believe his hairdresser, it’s what he wanted all along. Kaarma got what he wanted out of our new and improved castle doctrine, but have we?

If we think of ourselves not as homeowners or garage-hopping kids but as Montanans trying to run a good society, do we want more trespassers and burglars to get shot? In theory, HB 228 protects homeowners from bad situations. In practice, though, it encourages them to make bad situations worse. A foolish young man is dead and another, even more foolish man has probably ruined his life. At least no one told him he had to retreat.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and foolishness at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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