How to Shoot Up Your Neighborhood

You can't just pull the trigger in Ohio and get away with it. At least not yet.

There's a piece of gallows humor you might hear if you bum around courthouse steps or firing ranges long enough. "If you shoot somebody on your porch," the rusty adage runs, "you'd better drag him inside the house."

And there's some truth rattling around those words. They're a reference to the "castle doctrine," a scrap of jurisprudence that came over on the boat from England and probably dates back to a time when men wanted nothing more than to throw back a few meads by the fire after a long day of evading the plague, without having to worry about the bloodthirsty Viking two doors down.

Updated for the modern homemaker, the castle doctrine means your residence is granted special legal standing — particularly when you have to fling bullets into an intruder. But it doesn't exactly mean a mortgage gives you a license to kill.

The castle doctrine exists in one form or another across the country. In some states, it's the assumed practice: more than half have carved it in stone with actual legislation, and Ohio has been in that group since 2008. But the statute is particularly noteworthy in Buckeye country because it's the spot in the code where shooters have the most latitude in terms of self-defense.

And thanks to recent events, the whole country is talking about self-defense.

In February, Florida teen Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a block-watch commando named George Zimmerman under suspicious circumstances. The gunman later claimed he thought he was jacking an armed and suspiciously hooded assailant; it turned out he shot down a kid in a hoodie packing nothing more than a bag of Skittles. Regardless, the shooting was initially squared thanks to the loose nature of Florida's self-defense laws. Cue the general outrage.

Nationwide, the heat from the Martin shooting has melted most debate down to puddles of bile, serving as a chance for old foes to bitch at each other about whether guns or people kill people. In Ohio, hard-liners on both sides of the Second Amendment actually agree: The current laws create too much gray area, and the day's not far off when we'll have to give the thumbs up or down on looser restrictions.

For now, here's what you'll need to know should a hooded assailant approach you with a deadly bag of candy.


Outside of your home, the basic checklist for using deadly force in the name of self-defense is pretty much the same from Solon to San Diego.

If you pull the trigger on someone, you're justified to do so if there's a reasonable belief that there was imminent danger of harm — i.e., shit was about to get real. But you don't get to play the self-defense card if you were the instigator of a dust-up that ends in bloodshed. Some states also require "necessity," meaning that nonviolent options weren't possible or were tried without success. But for violent episodes spanning a few seconds, this requirement usually gets little attention in the courtroom.

"If you are being threatened by someone with a gun, you don't have to try to go into mediation," explains Jonathan P. Witmer-Rich, a professor of law at Cleveland State University.

The final justification to drop a prospective assailant is probably the key one: whether or not you had the opportunity to haul your ass out of the area before shooting became the only option. Yes, traditionally, the law has favored flight over fight. The exception is when you're faced with a gun.

But through the common law — that slowly accumulating legal common sense that serves as the courtroom standard — most states acknowledge that, while seemingly a great idea, it's not your job to retreat inside your own home when confronted by danger. Nonetheless, in 2008, the ink dried on new legislation in Ohio that specifically said that.

The timing wasn't random. During the mid-2000s, the National Rifle Association started flexing its muscles in legislatures across the country, pushing for laws that would increase the rights of gun owners. The changes in the Ohio statute were twofold. The new law got rid of the duty to retreat from your house or vehicle when confronted. The second part performed some legal judo. Traditionally, the burden of proof in self-defense rested on whoever pulled the trigger — meaning a shooter had to convince a jury or authorities that the killing was justified. The new law introduced the presumption that if it's Colonel Mustard in his library with the revolver, it's automatically assumed to be self-defense.

The catch is that the prosecution can prove otherwise. Say you blow away a mohawked and tattooed intruder coming through the living-room window at night. According to the law, if you don't say another word after police arrive, they'll assume you drew while gripped in mortal fear. But if your distraught daughter comes downstairs, says the deceased was her harmless, unarmed boyfriend Zeke who gets drunk and crawls through the window every Saturday like clockwork — oh, and Dad never liked the guy to begin with because of the mohawk and tattoos — the cuffs are probably coming out.

That's what separates Ohio's statute from higher-proof castle doctrines elsewhere. If Zeke was going cold on a floor in Florida, you'd be OK, with or without your daughter's intervention. In the Sunshine state, all self-defense inside the home is justified.

"It doesn't matter if the intruder isn't using deadly force, it doesn't matter if the intruder isn't posing any danger to you — you can just shoot them to get them out of your house," Witmer-Rich says. "I think Ohio is pretty middle-of-the-road on this issue."

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