BY PETER J. RYAN
It’s midnight. The house is dark and tranquil. Until…
You awaken suddenly, as the sound of breaking glass jolts you from the haze of sleep. You reach into the drawer of your nightstand, where you store a loaded handgun. You rise from the bed, inching your way through the blackness, heart pulsing in your chest.
You move quietly down the hallway toward the living room, where moonlight reveals a shadowy figure, his hooded face shielded from you. Adrenalin pumping through your veins, you aim your weapon. The intruder, now aware of your presence, freezes momentarily before turning and edging toward you.
A shot shatters the night’s stillness, a deafening burst of gunfire flashing from the barrel of your semi-automatic. The intruder falls backward, lying motionless. You keep your weapon trained on the target, your hands trembling as your chest heaves, lungs searching for air.
It’s over, but it’s only the beginning. You made a split-second decision that will forever change your life—if, that is, you were able to make that decision, to set aside your fear and uncertainty and decide that shooting an unidentified intruder was your best option.
“Once you use force, you can’t take it back,” says retired Livingston Police Chief Darren Raney, who taught classes for area residents seeking concealed carry permits. “Even if someone is legally justified to use deadly force, after the situation is over and the facts become known, they’re still going to have to live with their actions.”
There are no current official statistics on actual gun sales. Most states, including Montana, have no registration requirements, and firearms often change hands in private transactions. Estimates on gun ownership are often politically tinged.
Perhaps the most reliable reflection of gun purchases is derived from monthly records provided by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, established in 1998 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to NICS statistics, background checks have more than doubled in recent years, rising from 10,036,933 in 2006 to a crest of 21,093,273 at the end of 2013. Montana background checks rose by more than one-third during the same period, increasing from 87,770 in 2006 to 137,830 in 2013. While these figures do not reflect actual gun sales—since a person undergoing a background check may have purchased more than one firearm—they do firmly establish that gun ownership is significantly on the rise.
Concealed carry permits are up considerably as well. According to Dr. John R. Lott, an economist and internationally recognized gun and crime expert who founded the non-profit Crime Prevention Research Center, such permits have risen from 4.6 million in 2007 to 11.1 million at the start of 2014. Lott said his statistics were gathered by contacting individual states.
Why the sudden spike in concealed carry permits?
“It is the same thing that has been driving the increase in gun sales generally,” Lott said. “The explosion for both happened about the same time—around the election in 2008 and again around December 2012. Generally, I would call it the Obama effect.”
“I think it is politically motivated,” Raney said. “I think people are concerned that their right to purchase a weapon or carry concealed may be restricted, and that’s the incentive to obtain a concealed carry permit before that happens, or purchase weapons before restrictions take effect.”
Are existing gun owners purchasing more weapons, or are new gun owners coming into the fold?
“Both,” Raney said. “I think people are stocking up on ammunition and buying additional weapons, and I think there are people just concerned about their own safety and the right to defend themselves.”
So, what is the proper way to defend oneself?
According to Raney, that is the reason classes in gun safety and concealed carry are offered.
“If someone is going to carry concealed legally, or possess a gun with the intention of using it to defend themselves, then they need to be prepared,” he said. “Not only mentally, but there also are tactical considerations such as knowing how to use it. You need to understand the law, and know when you can legally use it, and not just use it as a bluff. Once you introduce a gun into a situation, things are going to escalate. People need to be prepared to respond.”
Since the possibility exists that a drawn firearm may eventually have to be used, Raney emphasizes that it is critical for the gun owner to know Montana statutes.
“The use of deadly force is justifiable only if the person reasonably believes that it is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm to them or another person,” he explained. “You can use force if you believe it is necessary for self-defense, but it rises to the level of deadly force only if you believe it is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm. That’s the standard.”
An individual’s decision to use deadly force is often open to legal scrutiny. When an incident occurs, whether it involves a private citizen or law enforcement officer, a full investigation takes place, at which time the fear of “imminent death or serious bodily harm” is closely examined.
“Every situation is different,” Raney said. “It’s going to be investigated and determined whether the person reasonably believed that they were threatened. The facts and circumstances are going to be judged on every incident.”
Even when the use of force is justified, there still may be a price to pay. The aftermath of a justifiable homicide can have lingering psychological effects, ones that are so common that mental health specialists have coined such terms as Post-Shooting Trauma and Post-Shooting Syndrome.
“It’s one of those things that’s burned into a person’s memory,” said Sweetgrass County Sheriff Department’s Lt. Alan Ronneberg, who has investigated justifiable homicides in the Big Timber area. “It’s something that you will never forget, and that’s where (trauma) comes in. How you deal with that memory is different with everybody, but it is going to affect you.”
Said Raney: “I know officers who have been involved in these situations, and it’s had an effect on each and every one of them. It’s common to second-guess themselves, and play the scenario over for the rest of their life, or until they are comfortable that they made the right decision.”
Courtnay Duchin, a Bozeman psychotherapist who has had extensive experience counseling persons affected by trauma, said responses can vary depending on the individual.
“We are exposed to all sorts of media and video games that simulate violent traumatic experiences, but it’s really a different ballgame when it actually happens to you,” Duchin said. “It is incredibly hard to predict how one will feel if they pull the trigger and end somebody’s life, no matter what the circumstance.”
In the wake of shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., the use of deadly force by law enforcement is now firmly in the public spotlight. While understandably raising questions about established policing procedures, the incidents perhaps also serve to highlight the difficulty of making rapid, life-and-death decisions, even by officers who have been trained to do so.
“I think there are far more situations where officers don’t respond with deadly force when they probably should have than there are situations when they use deadly force inappropriately,” Raney said. “I think members of the public, as well as officers, tend to hesitate rather than use force that is likely to kill somebody.”
While Raney described Montana’s gun laws as generally permissive, he emphasized that a concealed carry permit has it limits. He noted that it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon in state or government buildings, schools and banking institutions, as well as establishments where alcohol is served. It also is illegal to carry concealed while under the influence of an intoxicating substance.
Montana law does not require a concealed carry license to keep a firearm at your place of business, or to store a gun in your vehicle, provided the weapon is not “wholly or partially covered by the clothing or wearing apparel of the person carrying or bearing the weapon.” There is no specification of the gun being loaded or unloaded. Since laws can vary from state to state, Raney recommended that you check statutes before traveling into other jurisdictions.
As for using a gun to protect your home, the law appears more lenient than using a gun in public. Montana Code Annotated 45-3-103, sometimes referred to as the state’s “castle doctrine,” holds that “a person is justified in the use of force or threat to use force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that the use of force is necessary to prevent or terminate the other person’s unlawful entry into or attack upon an occupied structure.” The use of deadly force, the law states, is allowed if the person “reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent an assault on the person or another then in the occupied structure,” or “to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
The castle doctrine was at the focal point of a case involving Missoula resident Markus Kaarma, who was found guilty of deliberate homicide late last year in the shotgun shooting death of Diren Dede, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from Germany. In a trial that drew worldwide attention, Kaarma’s attorneys argued that their client not only was protecting himself, his female domestic partner and their young child, but also that Dede was committing a forcible felony, in this case burglary, because he intended to steal beer from the refrigerator in the couple’s garage.
“He took action at the time that he felt was appropriate,” Paul Ryan, Kaarma’s lead attorney, told The Pioneer. “He felt justified in that he felt he was going to be injured or killed in some fashion. In retrospect, he wishes he had known all the facts, and who this kid was, but he didn’t.”
Ryan claimed that Kaarma had been victimized by previous burglaries, and those incidents elevated his fear for his property and family.
“One of the things that is difficult for people who have never been burglarized, it’s just an uneasy feeling knowing that someone has been where they’re not supposed to be,” he said. “(When) you’ve just been victimized, it puts you in a different mindset, and I think it put him in a different mindset.”
Kaarma certainly appeared on edge in the days leading up to the shooting. One of the prosecution witnesses, a hairdresser named Tanya Colby, testified that Kaarma allegedly told her, “I’ve been up three nights with a shotgun waiting to kill some kids,” later adding, “I’m not kidding, you’re seriously going to see this on the news.”
“(A previous crime) can make people more susceptible to using force the next time,” Ronneberg said. “There’s a lot of paranoia after something like that happens. You have a tendency to overreact—or be quick to act—over a minor incident.”
Ryan’s defense team also argued that Kaarma was acting “to prevent the commission of a forcible felony,” since Dede was burglarizing his garage. However, the jury determined that since he was unable to see the intruder, he had no way of knowing Dede was committing a burglary. Damaging Kaarma’s case further was the fact that his partner, Janelle Pflager, was recorded telling a police officer that she heard the teenager beg for his life, although she later changed her testimony, saying she never heard such a plea.
The jury ultimately determined that Kaarma should not have fired his shotgun because he was unable to properly assess the threat. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, although Ryan plans to appeal.
“The judge gave the wrong law,” Ryan said. “He gave law on the defense of a person versus defense of an occupied structure. He gave both, which was confusing to the jury. Defense of a person is a much higher standard than defense of an occupied structure.”
“When we took (the case),” Ryan added, “we weren’t fully aware of what had been said to hairdressers and things like that. On the facts we had at the time, it certainly appeared it was a home invasion and he took action because he felt threatened.”
Raney took a more philosophical approach toward a confrontation within a home.
“People who use deadly force have to be certain, and be sure of their target, and make sure it is an actual threat,” he said. “Another option is if they can safely leave the residence without jeopardizing their own safety.”
Do private gun ownership and concealed carry permits prevent crime? This is a central issue in the ongoing gun debate, and one that is made more complicated by the dearth of statistics on justifiable homicide.
“Only about 1 percent of the police departments report the numbers for law enforcement, and there are even fewer police departments who report them for civilians,” said Lott, of the Crime Prevention Center. “They’re not required to report it.”
Lott points to revocation rates of concealed carry permits as an indicator of whether such permits benefit or endanger the public.
“If you look across states over time, revocation rates are extraordinarily low,” he said. “People who were to accidentally fire their gun or do something else improper with it would lose their permits, but you see revocations for any type of firearms-related violation at thousandths or tens of thousandths of one percentage point. Permit holders face much lower firearms-related violation rates than do police officers. This is true even in states that don’t require formal training to carry, indicating that people acquire this training almost always on their own.”
Ronneberg, who teaches a handgun fundamentals class in Big Timber, said he views private gun ownership as a potential deterrent to crime.
“In Montana, and in our situation where there is a smaller population density, I think it’s more of a positive,” he said. “It shows that people are willing to defend themselves. And, as long as they take responsibility for it, then I’m good with it.”
Raney agreed. “The public has shown that the vast majority can use common sense,” he said, “and they are responsible gun owners. I don’t think that restrictive gun measures are going to have any effect on reducing crime.”
Ronneberg added that even though formal training is not required to own a firearm, many new gun owners embrace the opportunity.
“You’re not required to, but it’s more of a moral responsibility,” he said. “A firearm is a tool. It’s the same thing as a skill saw, or a chainsaw, anything like that. If you don’t know how to handle it safely, you’re going to hurt somebody or yourself.”