The Missouri House easily passed a bill this week to allow more individuals to use deadly force in self-defense. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Don McGaugh (R) portrays the bill as authorizing deadly force by a babysitter or nanny “in the event of a home invasion.”
“This is a common sense extension of the law that would empower a nanny or babysitter, or anyone with the owner’s permission to occupy a property, to defend himself or herself against an intruder,” McGaugh said in a press release.
But whether McGaugh knows it or not, the text of the bill suggests it is far broader, potentially authorizing individuals in any privately owned space where they are authorized to be — including sports stadiums, retail shops, bars, and restaurants — to use deadly force against perceived unlawful entrants. The bill states that force is permitted against a person who “unlawfully enters, remains after unlawfully entering, or attempts to unlawfully enter private property that is owned or leased by an individual, or is occupied by an individual who has been given specific authority by the property owner to occupy the property, claiming a justification of using protective force under this section.”
Missouri property law expert Dale A. Whitman told ThinkProgress that such “occupants” could include somebody who’s eating a hamburger at a McDonald’s, parking in a parking lot, or visiting a movie theater. Under the bill that just passed the house, any of these individuals would be authorized to use deadly force without any duty to retreat when they reasonably believe the force is necessary to defend themselves.
In many ways, the bill mirrors Stand Your Ground laws, which authorize deadly force without a duty to retreat anywhere an individual has a legal right to be. But unlike Stand Your Ground laws, the basis for using deadly force is not fear of imminent death or great bodily harm; it is protecting against “unlawful entry.” So, for example, a patron at a sporting event who sees someone enter the event without a ticket and believes they need to defend other sporting patrons might take it upon themselves to shoot that person.
“It’s really broad,” said Whitman, who is a professor emeritus of law at the University of Missouri. “I take it any time you’re on somebody else’s real estate with the authority or approval of the owner, you fit in this category.”
If anything it is clear it is that the scope of the bill is unknown. There are some possible limits on the language. The use of the words “specific authority,” for example, has been interpreted by some to mean that an owner might have to do something such as issue a ticket in order to specifically authorize occupancy. “I have no idea what the difference between specific authority and authority is,” Whitman said. In the example of the grocery store, he said when it opens its doors and invites people in to shop that’s “certainly authority.”
In response to a ThinkProgress inquiry, a McGaugh staffer confirmed that the bill’s intent was to authorize individuals such as babysitters to use deadly force. When asked why the provision that authorizes “occupants” to use force was added to the section on “private property” rather than the section on “dwellings” and “residences” even though it is described as an expansion of the “Castle Doctrine” (which allows self defense in the home), the staffer deferred to McGaugh. McGaugh did not return a call for comment by press time.
The bill passed “overwhelmingly,” according to KCTV Missouri, even as another bill sponsored by a Democratic lawmaker was proposed to instead narrow Missouri’s self-defense law by requiring an individual to attempt retreat before using deadly force. The elimination of the so-called “duty to retreat” is central to the expansion of Stand Your Ground-like self-defense laws. It means individuals are authorized to fire a gun in defense, even if they could have instead escaped the situation, and has been associated with increased vigilantism.
Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin more than two years ago drew national attention to Stand Your Ground laws and other broad self-defense provisions, not one state has successfully passed a provision to narrow the laws, while several states — including Florida — have passed laws to expand them. Just yesterday, Louisiana lawmakers killed a repeal provision in that state.