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Commentary: Of castles, cars, road rage and guns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2012 - “A man’s home is his castle,” the saying goes, and according to a recent change in Missouri’s self-defense law, so is his car.

That this is indeed Missouri’s law on self-defense was brought home recently when St. Charles County prosecutor Jack Banas declined to file charges against a 65-year-old man who shot at a motorcyclist after allegedly being punched by him. The punch landed on the grandfather when he was seated in his car and, as Banas put it, “under Missouri law, if you are in your house or in your vehicle, you can use deadly force to defend yourself against unlawful force.” This seems, sadly, to be an accurate statement of the law.

This case doesn’t have the resonance of the Trayvon Martin case. There was no racial element here, at least none is discernable from the news stories. And in Florida, George Zimmerman wasn’t defending his house or his car. The biggest difference is that, here, no one was killed.

But it does raise similar issues.

Both cases ask whether the default setting in situations like these should be to shoot or to retreat. Both the laws in Missouri and the laws in Florida seem to say you should shoot if you feel threatened enough. In the Missouri case, if someone is threatening you in your house or in your car, the default becomes the use of deadly force. You no longer have the duty to retreat, or for that matter, to roll up the window and drive away.

The news reports of the Missouri case don’t go into much detail: how hard the punch was, or how easy it would have been for the man in the car to leave the scene. But the Missouri law makes such questions less important than they once were. The questions now are, was he in his car, and did he feel he needed to use deadly force to defend himself? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” the case is over. We don’t really get to ask whether the person being threatened did all in his power to avoid having to use deadly force.

That’s because, again, there’s no duty to retreat, to withdraw from the situation, under Missouri law.

Is this a world we want to live in? This isn’t law, or justice, or anything like it. It’s the Wild West.

A Post-Dispatch story quoted the director of a firearms training and consulting company as saying “as soon as the blast went off and [the motorcyclist] was hit on the chest, he probably thought, ‘I picked on the wrong old man.” This seems a little flip. Remember that the motorcyclist could have been killed in what looks to have been a silly road rage altercation. Is punching someone now a capital offense, if you happen to “pick on the wrong old man”?

But how about we draw a different lesson? How about: Leave the gun at home, and not in the car? How about: If someone cuts you off, don’t shoot him?

Chad Flanders teaches law at Saint Louis University.