Last month Robert Roof pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for pointing a gun at his neighbor.
The September incident was not the first time the two had been in conflict. A shared driveway meant the line between their properties was not always clear.
According to court records, the victim said Roof, 51, pointed a gun at him during an argument over roof tiles left on his side of the property. Roof told police he thought he was justified because the victim was charging toward him.
The Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t agree. Roof was sentenced to probation for the incident. He had faced up to five years in prison.
In Idaho, anyone over the age of 21 is allowed to carry a concealed gun without a permit. On Wednesday, Gov. Brad Little signed into law a bill that will lower the age to 18.
The bill, HB 206, drew strong opposition from Boise Police Chief William Bones and an array of others, the Idaho Press’ Betsy Z. Russell reported. Bones told a Senate panel last month that young people are “much more likely to make an impulsive decision. … I would ask as a police chief, as a community member, and as a father, that you not pass HB 206.”
Of course, handguns aren’t the only firearms used for self-defense and young people aren’t the only ones to misuse them.
This year has seen two gun incidents in Jefferson County — one in January in which a 72-year-old woman fired a gun at an irrigation company employee and another March 31 where a 28-year-old man reportedly pointed a rifle at cattle that had wandered onto his land and the ranchers trying to retrieve them — make headlines.
Regardless of the firearm, gun owners without training or legal preparation, however, may not be aware of when they are legally justified in drawing or firing a weapon in self-defense.
Idaho is among the nation’s most gun-friendly states. An October report from gunsandammo.com ranked Idaho as the second-best state for gun owners, trailing only Arizona. And CBS News ranked Idaho’s percentage of gun owners (56.9 percent) as third nationally, behind Arkansas (57.9 percent) and Alaska (61.7).
“I think a lot of members of the public, especially since we’re so gun-oriented in Idaho and Utah, probably don’t have a good handle on when it is or isn’t appropriate to introduce a gun into any kind of conflict,” Rocky Wixom, Roof’s attorney, said at Roof’s sentencing.
Idaho Code 19-202A addresses when an individual may use force in self-defense.
“No person in this state shall be placed in legal jeopardy of any kind whatsoever for protecting himself or his family by reasonable means necessary, or when coming to the aid of another whom he reasonably believes to be in imminent danger of or the victim of aggravated assault, robbery, rape, murder or other heinous crime,” the statute states.
Bonneville County Prosecutor Daniel Clark said the rule is similar to when shootings by law enforcement are scrutinized.
The key word in the statute is “reasonable.” In cases such as Roof’s, the individual who introduces a gun into a conflict must not only believe they’re under threat, put prove a reasonable person would feel the same way.
According to Clark, a person drawing a weapon may still be guilty of a felony if they were under threat, but not to an extent that warrants deadly force.
“Common situations where someone might mistakenly believe they can draw a weapon would be when ‘deadly force’ is not present in whatever conflict they find themselves,” Clark wrote in an email. “Every citizen has the right to use ‘reasonable force’ to repel any assault. Meaning, if I say I’m going to punch you in the nose, and you in response draw your weapon and threaten to shoot me, you have ‘escalated’ that conflict to deadly force — whereas I had not. Therefore depending on the circumstances, you could have committed an aggravated assault.”
Deciding whether drawing or firing a gun is justified comes down to what constitutes “reasonable.”
Michael Loy, director of training at Guns N Gear Sports, used the example of somebody entering his office with a knife. That situation may warrant the use of deadly force if the person is making threats and pointing the knife at him. It’s another situation if it’s his wife saying she plans to trim the bushes.
Loy added that a person who feels threatened may not have time to consider the legal ramifications of their actions.
“The black-and-white letter of the law is not easy for the average person to wrap their head around in a hundredth of a second,” Loy said.
Loy said Guns N Gear Sports has an attorney speak at training classes to help customers understand the legal ins and outs of self-defense.
Idaho residents can complete a variety of training programs conducted by state or NRA-certified instructors to receive their concealed carry permits. Loy said that training programs such as hunter education courses do not discuss moral or legal issues at play in self-defense.
Clark said when looking at potential self-defense cases, the law is only concerned with what information the person who used or threatened force had at the time.
Clark cited a case where a man woke up to find a stranger in his bathroom. The homeowner pointed a gun at the intruder and told him not to move. The intruder suddenly stood up and was shot and injured.
It turned out the man was intoxicated and had unknowingly entered the wrong house. The prosecutor’s office found the shooter had reason to feel threatened, however, because a stranger had entered his home at night.
“We don’t look at these things with 20/20 hindsight,” Clark said. “What did the person know or perceive at the time he used deadly force (either by pulling a weapon or using the weapon)? That lens that he is looking through at that time is what is controlling.”