A legal definition of reasonable belief is “that which an ordinary person of average intelligence and sound mind would believe.” Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, is concerned that putting that term in House Bill 75 might create a loophole for a person “just to get guns away from somebody.” But five years ago, she co-sponsored a law which allows a citizen to shoot to kill based on the same loose string of words.
Reinbold raised the issue last week during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. If enacted, a person who reasonably believes a family member or domestic relation poses significant danger of injury to themselves or others could seek an emergency gun violence protective order. If granted, it would force the respondent to surrender legally owned firearms for up to 20 days, pending the outcome of a full hearing.
HB 75 is obviously much more complicated than I’ve described. My intent is to make a comparison to the reasonable belief provision in AS 11.81.335. The so-called “Stand Your Ground” law passed in 2013 permits the use of deadly force “when and to the extent the person reasonably believes” it’s “necessary for self-defense against” death, serious physical injury and even “robbery in any degree.”
Under HB 75, if the “reasonable belief” of the person seeking the protective order isn’t substantiated, the gun would be returned. No one is physically harmed.
But if a person fearing imminent harm or theft leaves a dead body on the other side, it won’t bring him or her back to life if a judge or jury determined that belief wasn’t reasonable.
Consider the tragic story of Cody Dalton Eyre who was shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Fairbanks on Christmas Eve.
Prior to the shooting, Eyre’s family was concerned about his state of mind. According to news reports, they said he was “having girlfriend problems” and was “stressed about the holidays.” He’d had one or more drinks that day before going went out for a walk. As always, he took his 22-caliber pistol.
News outlets reported his mother said she feared for his own safety and followed him. Several miles from their home, she called the police. She and Eyre’s sister said he was visibly agitated when they arrived at the scene. He “peacefully spoke” with the officers before disregarding their instructions and walking into the woods. The officers followed. According to the state troopers online dispatch, all five discharged their weapons after he “brandished his firearm” toward them. The case is under investigation.
It’s fair to say Eyre’s family reasonably feared he might commit suicide. It’s conceivable the law envisioned by HB 45 could have helped them obtain a gun protective order before that night. And if he’d gone out walking alone without the gun, they might not have called the police.
Consider the other side of the story. Five armed officers, likely wearing bullet proof vests, facing one man with a handgun. Brandishing — “all or part of the weapon was displayed” — doesn’t sound as threatening as aiming. How reasonable was the fear for their own lives?
Let’s look at a few Florida cases. In 2013, Deputy Sheriff Peter Peraza of Broward County said he shot and killed 33-year old Jermaine McBean because the man aimed a rifle at him. Eyewitness accounts disputing that was reasonable because McBean’s weapon was just an air rifle. But a judge applied “Stand Your Ground” doctrine and dismissed the charge of manslaughter.
A year earlier, George Zimmerman called the police to report a suspicion person in his neighborhood. He ignored police instruction not to follow the suspect. In the altercation that followed, Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed. “Stand your ground” played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Finally, there’s the case of Scot Peterson, the armed school resource deputy who has been called a coward for not engaging the shooter who unloaded his AR-15 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In all these stories, he’s the only one whose substantial firearm inferiority makes it reasonable to claim he feared for his own life.
The application of “reasonable belief” in HB 75 is far more appropriate than the existing “Stand Your Ground Law.” If Reinbold doesn’t recognize that, then she’s more focused on protecting an absolute interpretation of the Second Amendment than the sanctity of life.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a regular “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.