St. Louis Killing Displays Messy Reality of the ‘Castle Doctrine’

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The Trace explores the troubling “castle doctrine” shooting death 13 months ago of Martinez Smith-Payne, 13. He was killed in St. Louis by Lervurance McDade, 60, who fired four shots at three boys who were fleeing after rifling through the man’s car for change. McDade had used an illegal gun to shoot at three unarmed kids some 70 feet away from his home, killing one of them. In other places, and at other times, this would be the kind of reckless behavior that could at minimum lead to a charge of manslaughter. But Missouri’s legislature, along with those in many other states, had adopted the castle doctrine, which says people can use deadly force to defend themselves on their property, so long as the individual “reasonably believes” he or she is about to be attacked.

In the last decade, gun rights groups — especially the NRA — have pushed to expand legal protections for people who shoot in self-defense. In 2005, Florida enacted a castle doctrine statute, crafted by the NRA, that permits people to not only kill home intruders, but also anyone they believe will do them “imminent” harm in any location they have a right to be. Soon after, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful conservative coalition of legislators and corporations, used the Florida statute to craft a model bill, which it called the “Castle Doctrine Act.” ALEC worked with the NRA on the initiative, and advocated for it around the country. In 2006, 13 states adopted a version of the statute. By 2012, the number had grown to 22. Missouri’s first version of the castle doctrine, passed in 2007, provides heightened legal protections for people who shoot in self-defense if they are in their home or vehicle. Passing the law was a top priority for the NRA.

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