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Nick Coleman


The State I'm In


Minnesota: A Man’s Home is His Castle. And an Execution Chamber, Too.

“She laughed at me.”
That was Byron David Smith’s explanation for why he kept shooting a wounded teen — one of two he killed in his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day. If a law passed by the Minnesota Legislature last year had not been vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, Smith might not be in jail.

It probably doesn’t seem that the Thanksgiving Day killings of two teens in Little Falls, Minnesota, shot by a deranged but heavily armed home owner, could be any more horrible. But consider this possibility: If a gun law passed early this year by the Minnesota Legislature had not been vetoed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the Little Falls killer would not be in jail.

Incredible, I know. But the “Stand Your Ground” bill — written by the National Rifle association, pushed by the Republican legislative majority and supported by many outstate DFLers — would probably mean that the 64-year-old man who shot the two teens in his basement, then left them there overnight because he didn’t want to disturb the cops on a national holiday, would be nearly immune to arrest or interrogation about the blood-curdling woundings-cum-executions he performed in his home.

Judging by the comments on some public forums, a lot of Minnesotans would be hailing him as a hero for his use of a high-powered Ruger Mini-14 military-style rifle to bring down his victims, and then finishing them off with a .22, fired into their chests, faces and under their chin into their heads.

“A good clean finishing shot,” the obviously demented homeowner, Byron David Smith told the cops in one of many bizarre touches that make the veracity of his story impossible for the public to assess.

One horrifying part of his story, as told to the authorities, led to murder charges: His clueless bragging about deliberately killing each of the teens, one by one, after they had been wounded. “The law doesn’t permit you to execute somebody after the threat is gone,” said the Morrison County Sheriff.

But it would have. If Dayton hadn’t vetoed the bill that was passed last spring.

UPDATE, Thursday: I have heard from a number of disgruntled gun owners, on Twitter and in the comments here, who seem embarrassed to have their number represented by the patently deluded Little Falls shooter. They defend the vetoed gun bill by arguing that the shooter would have been prosecuted even if the Stand Your Ground bill had been signed by the governor. Essentially, they are defending the terrible bill that was vetoed by citing the law as it stands, unamended. I agree that if the story told by the shooter after his arrest turns out to be true — a big if — Mr. Smith probably would, eventually, have been charged. But that’s not the point. The point is that if the law had not been vetoed, the cops would not have been allowed to take him into custody until after the investigation was complete. They wouldn’t have been able to interrogate him in depth; they would have had to take his word that he felt under threat of serious harm, and they would have had to act as if a guy with two dead teens on his basement floor was above suspicion. The fact that justice might eventually be served would be cold comfort to the families involved. The fact remains: It was a terrible law, cooked up by a gun lobby that won’t be happy until it is legal to shoot any one, any time. The shooting of Trayvon Martin has led to a soul-searching review of Florida gun laws. If this flawed Minnesota law had not been vetoed, we would find ourselves in Minnesota undergoing the same painful process.
Disclaimer for the Dull-witted: I am a licensed Minnesota gun owner and am not “anti-gun.” I am only against gun laws that are designed to make guns into gods.

Current state law allows a homeowner who fears for his life to use lethal force to defend himself. But it is up to a judge to determine whether that fear was “reasonable” or not. The bill passed last spring would have bypassed the judge and taken the shooter’s word as Gospel: “I was fearful, so I killed ‘em” would have been good enough.

More than that, the law put handcuffs on the cops, requiring them to presume the shooter was innocent and prohibiting them from making an arrest unless — and only if — they found probable cause after an investigation. If that law had taken effect Aug. 1, as it would have without the veto, the Little Falls shooter would not have been taken into custody, would not have been interrogated and might well still be sitting in his house, cradling his Mini 14 in his lap while Minnesotans scratched their heads. True, a forensic investigation would eventually have produced evidence that the teenage victims had been shot multiple times, and at close range while lying on the basement floor. But there is no telling what would or wouldn’t have happened after that. If Byron David Smith was still puttering around the house, keeping his mouth shut, he might never have been arrested.

“Most sane people shut up,” said Tom Weyandt, a retired St. Paul city prosecutor who wrote an excellent analysis of the flaws in the gun bill for MinnPost last spring. “That law would, in effect, have proved criminal immunity in cases where a defendant claims self-defense. It was such a poorly worded statute, with such strange things in it, that it would’ve taken decades to straighten out. It was a stupid bill.”

Fortunately, it did not become law, because the governor killed it on his desk, with the urging of most law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in the state, who uniformly opposed it. And, now that the GOP majority in the Legislature has disappeared, the bill is not likely to come back.

Let’s be grateful that it didn’t happen. Minnesota, just barely, escaped becoming Florida North.

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