Billings Shooting: Test Case for ‘Castle Doctrine’

By Beacon Staff

Ever wonder how some of the policy decisions made in the Montana Legislature actually affect the lives of everyday citizens? Well look no further than the front page of the Billings Gazette, where a must-read story by Kahrin Deines lays out how a man accused of shooting a co-worker in the face has been released as a result of the newly-enacted and controversial so-called “castle doctrine” bill, which passed the 2009 session. In a nutshell, a Wal-Mart employee, Craig Schmidt is accused of shooting and wounding his much larger co-worker, Daniel Lira, after Lira punched Schmidt in a dispute over the length of a break. But authorities have since had to release Schmidt until they can determine whether he acted in self-defense.

This newly created law, House Bill 228 by Laurel Republican Krayton Kerns, was one of the key gun rights battles of the recent session, with gun advocates lining up against law enforcement to hammer out a compromise on the legislation. The original form of the bill would have extended the right to all Montanans to carry a concealed weapon in Montana towns and cities. The fight over the bill extended to even after the session, when in June Helena Mayor Jim Smith, a lobbyist for law enforcement groups, accused Gary Marbut, of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, of failing to properly register as a lobbyist.

This story seems to indicate that law enforcement remains none too pleased with this change in the law. From Deines’ story:

(Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis) Paxinos said that prior to passage of House Bill 228 authorities would have had probable cause to arrest Schmidt for assault with a weapon.

Now, he said, they need more details about whether there was a history of aggression between the two men, what they may have said to each other when the incident occurred and other information that will shape whether it was reasonable for Schmidt to believe his life was threatened. Other details such as the size of the two men – Schmidt weighs 150 pounds and Lira weighs 300 pounds – could also affect whether a self-defense claim is reasonable, Paxinos said.

Many questions remain about this story, which will depend on how the case develops. If other cases like this begin to pop up around Montana, creating major headaches for law enforcement, or if those alleged to have committed crimes leave the state after being released from custody, there could be a strong push for changes to the law at the next state Legislature. Also, am I the only one wondering whether Wal-Mart employees are allowed to carry guns on the job?

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