Two men who have a history of rancor toward each other both happen to be in the same saloon one evening. Late in the evening, they meet face-to-face outside the saloon. They exchange looks, then angry words leading to confrontation. Each man carries a gun; neither is willing to back off. Then, as if on cue, guns are drawn and shots silence the din of the saloon. One man is wounded, the other turns and walks away.
Is this a scene from the Old West, perhaps from a western movie such as “Gunfight at the OK Corral” or “Tombstone?” No! You may be surprised to learn it happened about six months ago right here in Iowa at a bar in Cedar Rapids. That a violent confrontation between two men carrying guns would happen in our time at a bar in Iowa should actually not come as a surprise. It was inevitable, only a matter of time. Indirectly, it was choreographed by the passage of Iowa’s “stand-your-ground” law.
Iowa is not the only state, and certainly not the first, to enact a stand-your-ground law. In general, such laws allow law-abiding persons to use deadly force to defend themselves or their families if they believe their lives are in danger. Under the law, those believing to be threatened are not required to retreat from what they believe is a personal danger — that is — they can stand their ground and employ whatever means are at their disposal to remove the perceived threat. Since stand-your-ground laws were passed, several incidents of using lethal force — killing the threatening perpetrator — have been reported in the national news. In these cases, the question that always arises is whether the believed or perceived danger actually rose to a “reasonable” level of personal danger.
But this Iowa incident is unique. It is the only instance of a showdown using deadly force between two armed men, who both claim immunity from prosecution because they were standing their ground. Their fates are now in the hands of lawyers and the courts to sort out. Both men have been charged with attempted murder. Like in the Old West, part of the eventual outcome probably hinges on “who drew first,” assuming that can be determined. Even so, the vagueness of Iowa’s stand-your-ground law will make it difficult to resolve this case. Iowa’s law has been criticized for lack of procedural clarity for determining the validity of the stand-your-ground defense.
Much legal time and energy (and money) will be expended sorting out this particular case and Iowa’s stand-your-ground law in general. On might question why the Iowa legislature would pass a law with such vague procedures. An even more important question is — why was this legislation ever even considered, much less enacted into law? Unfortunately, many people hold beliefs that widespread gun ownership provides security from criminal harm for law-abiding people. Stand-your-ground laws are simply a logical extension of our increasingly liberal gun ownership laws.
I remember a bumper sticker from years ago that read, “When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.” Yet in the United States, the murder rate is approximately twice as high as Canada, and roughly four to five times as high as the murder rates of most west European countries. These countries all have more restrictive gun laws than the U.S. and some even have highly restrictive laws. Furthermore, the U.S. anti-gun movement has never espoused totally outlawing guns as the gun lobby often claims. It advocates restricting some of the more egregious weapons and accessories, such as assault rifles and large ammunition clips that really have no justifiable purpose other than use in combat. The movement also promotes keeping guns out of the hands of individuals posing danger to society. Yet if the National Rifle Association (NRA) had its way, all restrictions on gun ownership probably would be removed.
Over the past few years, mass killings with guns have become almost commonplace. After each episode, public elected officials exclaim their horror, extend condolences to the victims and their families, and call for action to stop the violence. But shortly the news media moves on to other salient issues, and to the relief of politicians who are actually loathe to take action for fear of losing election support from the gun lobby, the problem is forgotten until the next episode.
Fortunately, the voices of outrage over gun violence are becoming stronger and the demand for action increases. Even more promising is the involvement of young people, the ones who have been most affected by the violence of the school shootings. They have sparked a national movement. With their high ideals, voting age just around the corner and not beholden to any special interest, the time may come when the stranglehold of the NRA on state and national elected officials is broken. Perhaps then high noon gunfights will only be seen on movie or video screens, which is where they belong.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.