Currently, Minnesota law authorizes the use of deadly force, without an obligation to retreat, when done to prevent the commission of a felony in a person's home. When not in his or her home, a person can rightfully use deadly force to avert a threat of death or great bodily harm to themselves or another, provided the person first attempts to avoid the danger if reasonably possible. In all situations, Minnesota law properly requires that the response be reasonable and necessary given the gravity of the danger faced.
The proposed changes would eliminate the duty to retreat before exercising the right of self-defense in all locations and permit a person to meet force with superior force, including deadly force, if the individual reasonably believes such force is needed to resist or prevent the imminent infliction of substantial bodily harm, great bodily harm or death. This proposal creates a presumption that deadly force can be used against someone who enters a dwelling by force or stealth, and it expands the definition of dwelling to include decks, porches, fenced-in areas, tents, other structures, and occupied watercraft and motor vehicles.
This proposal inappropriately creates a subjective standard of reasonableness of the actions rather than the objective standard in current law. In other words, the issue becomes what was in the mind of the person using deadly force, rather than how a reasonable person would have reacted under the same circumstances.
Such a law would, in essence, allow people to shoot first and ask questions later whenever they believe they are exposed to substantial harm, regardless of how a reasonable person would have responded under the circumstances. If this proposal were to be enacted, there would be numerous examples of situations where the law would allow an individual to shoot and kill in self-defense, even though a reasonable person would never have done so.
Do we really want to allow a driver who believes he is being threatened with substantial harm in a road-rage incident to shoot and kill the other driver, rather than calling 911 or simply driving away?
Do we really want the law to presume that a homeowner has the right to shoot and kill an unarmed person who has entered a garage to steal a bicycle or other personal property, without first calling the police?
Do we really want to authorize the use of deadly force in response to a push, punch or verbal threat without any inquiry as to whether a reasonable person would have done so under the circumstances?
Another problem with this stand-your-ground-and-shoot-first expansion of the right to use deadly force is that it would apply equally to dangerous criminals. With no duty to retreat, anyone can claim they are responding to a threat of serious harm and are therefore justified in escalating the confrontation and killing the other person. And keep in mind that under this proposal it is their judgment, not that of a reasonable person, that is the controlling factor.
No one is more concerned about the safety and protection of Minnesota's citizens than I am as one of our state's prosecutors. But current Minnesota law establishing the right of self-defense and the justified use of deadly force adequately protects law-abiding citizens. These proposed changes would unnecessarily expand the law of self-defense and encourage the use of deadly force as a first thought in response to danger.
The taking of a life should be a last resort. It should not be encouraged as a first response unless the danger is reasonably apparent to us all.
James C. Backstrom is the Dakota County Attorney.