Using direct democracy the way it was meant to be used, voters in Washington have boldly led the way in keeping guns out of the hands out of people who shouldn’t have them.
They did it at the ballot box two years ago by expanding background checks for firearms purchases. They did it again this week by approving an initiative allowing “extreme risk” orders; people will now be able to petition a judge to compel suicidal or otherwise dangerous family members to surrender their guns.
Washington has taken stronger gun-control steps than many other states, certainly stronger than a derelict Congress. We now have laws that remove guns from individuals with criminal records, acute mental health issues or a history of domestic abuse.
Alas, no law can prevent mayhem caused by the rank stupidity of a legal firearm owner.
Stupidity was what propelled an errant bullet through Linda Green’s bedroom window on Nov. 3. Stupidity was what shot the 61-year-old Bonney Lake woman in the head and killed her while she slept.
Her neighbor, Tobin Panton, was charged Monday with first-degree manslaughter. He’s the inadvertent villain in a tragic case of do-it-yourself justice run amok. Police say he stood on his front porch and fired indiscriminately in the direction of his own Jeep while a car thief drove it away from his property. A dozen spent casings were found on the porch.
When Green’s family sized up Panton in court, they weren’t looking into the face of evil — and on some level, that could make it harder to process their heartbreak.
“He was just a normal guy,” brother Marvin Green told reporters. “He doesn’t seem too radical, looking at him. Just a plain guy that was stupid, did stupid stuff.”
As if the death of an innocent grandmother weren’t bad enough, the foolish, hyperadrenalized actions that preceded it also leave us aghast —specifically, the faulty assumption that a person is justified defending his property like Yosemite Sam blasting away at a cattle rustler.
Washington law does allow citizens to use deadly force to protect themselves and others, and unlike some states, it does not prescribe a duty to retreat. But several conditions generally must apply in a self-defense case: There must be an imminent threat and reasonable fear of harm, and the response should be proportional to the kind of threat presented.
Good luck trying to check off any of those boxes in the case of a fleeing Jeep thief.
“Generally speaking, in Washington you cannot use deadly force to stop a nonviolent crime,” says Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
And what if the shooter’s aim had been true and he’d wounded the getaway driver, perhaps mortally? Would there have been much public outrage? Probably not; there might even be congratulations, judging by vehement stand-your-ground reactions that have surfaced during previous local self-defense cases.
One national authority on self-defense training and law had this to say about the Wild West mentality: “It is a widespread and dangerous misconception that all criminals are fair game for the bullets of the good guys,” wrote Massad Ayoob, the long-time director of the Lethal Force Institute, in his 1980 book on the subject. “A basic principle of American justice holds that a bad man has the same rights as a good man.”
Legally obtaining and licensing a weapon is not the end of an owner’s responsibility. Nobody should have a gun unless they’re ready to enroll in an NRA or other reputable safety course; abide by safe storage practices; understand the law, including the fine line between defense and offense; and commit to not handling a firearm when in an emotional state such as anger or depression.
The distance between emotion and stupidity is as short as the trigger pull on a .40-caliber Glock pistol, as Linda Green’s family can sadly testify.