PERILS OF MONTANA’S CASTLE DOCTRINE

Leviticus 19:4 commands us not to put a stumbling block before the blind. The Rabbis interpret this as not placing temptation before the morally weak. Both the youth culture of Missoula, Montana and Montana law—the “castle doctrine” allowing residents to defend their homes with deadly force—seem to have violated this mitzvah to the detriment of both.

According to The New York Times, a 29-year-old Missoula man shot and killed a 17-year-old German male exchange student on the night of April 27. The victim entered the shooter’s garage uninvited. Missoula teens, it seems, like to sneak into people’s homes to steal a six-pack of beer or other relatively inconsequential item. Male teens are not noted for sound judgment.

The shooter, who was arrested, set down a stumbling block. He left his garage door partially open so that he and his partner could go out for a smoke every now and then. The teen went in not knowing that burglars had twice broken into the shooter’s house, and that the shooter is the father of a 10-month-old. The shooter was understandably nervous.

Here, Montana placed down its own stumbling block. State law legitimizes shooting someone who attempts to enter a home in a “violent, riotous or tumultuous manner.” Muddying the waters, the dead teen’s actions seemingly wouldn’t fall under Montana’s “castle doctrine.” But the shooter was a skittish resident, not a lawyer. He had no idea who was inside his garage and to what purpose.

Both pro- and anti-gun forces would like to believe that the issue is crystal clear. It’s not. Criminals do enter people’s homes and commit heinous acts. The dead boy, on the other hand, wasn’t likely one of them.

I don’t have a gun. I’m aware of the temptation to use a weapon if I had one. But I have no problem with people who possess guns legally. If I lived out in the country, I’d strongly consider owning both a shotgun and a pistol. Plus a big dog. Maybe two.

But there’s a problem. Americans can legally possess weapons without undergoing the extensive training taken by law-enforcement officers. And even cops, faced with challenging situations, sometimes make fatal mistakes. It’s easy to pull a trigger. It’s not so easy to know when.

The shooter never faced a serious threat. We know that. He didn’t. He also lacked the training necessary to determine a more prudent course of action. Still, I don’t doubt that his fear was genuine. I also understand that he preferred not to take chances with an intruder whose purpose he could not analyze.

Here I note Exodus 22:1. It states that a thief who tunnels into a home—and whose intentions are impossible to decipher—may be killed without bloodguilt. While the Rabbis nearly two millennia ago made implementing the death penalty virtually impossible, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) strongly supports self-defense.

Yet again, Americans’ love of guns mixed with fear of criminal attack has led to a needless death. But the death of an innocent person falling prey to a criminal serves no purpose. I offer no easy answers. I don’t think the jury will, either.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

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4 Comments


  1. Claudia H Long
    May 09, 2014

    Thank you for not providing an easy answer. The greatness of compassionate thought is the ability to look beyond the knee-jerk easy answer, on either side, and find room in our hearts for the struggle.
    Gun violence is a drum-beat and scourge of our country. But the shooter had no way of knowing that the intruder wasn’t about to perpetrate gun violence on him or his infant. There are shootings daily across our country, and while this is poignant it really isn’t unique.
    The laws across different states range from rational to absurd. “Open carry” allows some to bring a gun to a school event and brandish it openly. Fear, culture and history collide with sense and necessity.
    There are no easy answers. All we have is compassionate thought. It won’t soothe the crushing grief of parents of the boy, or bring him back, or allay what is probably an overwhelming sense of confusion and guilt of the shooter, but compassionate thought will help all of us reach somewhere inside us to know and understand this troublesome event.


    • David
      May 09, 2014

      Thanks, Claudia. If Americans—if all people—could move towards the center from extremes and listen to each other, we might not enact perfect laws and guarantee perfect scenarios, but we’d improve our individual and collective lots. Compassionate thought would take us there.


  2. Tracy
    May 10, 2014

    So you’re saying that if the shooter HAD gone to law school, all would be well.

    I couldn’t agree more.


  3. Carolyn Perlstein
    May 16, 2014

    No guns; no harm, no foul.

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