An unarmed, 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by his 75-year-old neighbor in Wisconsin on May 31, even as the 13 year old put up his hands and tried to run away. If the incident happened just a few feet closer to the killer's house, the state's new Castle Doctrine law may have been invoked to protect the shooter from prosecution; the law more likely would have applied had the National Rifle Association's full version of its "model" bill been enacted.
The Castle Doctrine law -- also known as Stand Your Ground or "shoot first" -- was conceived by the NRA and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). These laws have come under increasing scrutiny after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Tragedy in Milwaukee
According to law enforcement filings, 13-year-old Darius Simmons was retrieving his family's garbage cans from the street when his neighbor, 75-year-old John Spooner, confronted him about stealing $3000 in shotguns from Spooner's house. Darius is African-American; Spooner is white. Darius denied stealing the guns, and his mother, who was also outside, called at Spooner to leave her son alone. Spooner then pulled out a 9mm handgun. The boy reportedly raised his hands in surrender and Spooner shot him once in the chest. The boy turned and ran, and Spooner fired again. He collapsed about ten feet from a small play area marked "Children's Park." The sixth-grader was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Darius' family said he was in school at the time the guns were reportedly stolen. Police searched Darius' house after he was shot -- and questioned his mother for two hours -- but did not find any of Spooner's guns. The boy and his mother moved to the neighborhood just one month earlier.
"He was gunned down for something he did not do," his aunt, Betty McCuiston, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Toni Clark, Darius' sixth-grade teacher, described him as "a jokester, loving and funny." She said "he was determined to get a good education."
ALEC/NRA Castle Doctrine Might Apply
In December 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a version of the "Castle Doctrine Act," which resembled a model bill conceived by the NRA and adopted by ALEC's corporate and legislative members.
Because of the new Wisconsin law, no charges will be filed in a separate case, the shooting of 20-year-old Bo Morrison, who was shot and killed by a homeowner in Slinger, Wisconsin as the young man hid on a porch after police broke-up an underage drinking party. In Florida, the law was initially cited to protect Trayvon Martin's killer George Zimmerman from arrest. Like Darius Simmons, both Bo Morrison and Trayvon Martin were black and unarmed; their shooters were not.
The law, which has also been pushed under the name "Stand Your Ground," is more accurately described as a "shoot first" law since it significantly alters the common law "Castle Doctrine" that for decades has recognized a right of self-defense in one's home. The ALEC/NRA model bill changes state law from recognizing a right to assert self-defense in front of a jury, to one that grants legal immunity to a person who uses "deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another." Rather than providing a defense against prosecution if a shooter alleges self-defense, it creates a presumption of immunity if a person alleges they felt threatened. It also essentially bars the deceased's family from bringing a civil suit.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is launching an inquiry into these laws for racial bias. In Florida, evidence suggests that shooters who invoke the law are more likely to escape prosecution if the victim is black.
Controversy over ALEC's role in promoting the Castle Doctrine/shoot first law and other model legislation has led to an exodus of corporate and legislative members. Even Wal-Mart, a longtime ALEC Board member which chaired the task force that initially ratified the Castle Doctrine Act, is ending its ALEC membership.
In response to the departure of many of its corporate funders, ALEC disbanded the task force responsible for the Castle Doctrine/shoot first legislation, as well as bills that privatize prisons and make it harder for many American citizens to vote. Some evidence suggests this move may be little more than a PR stunt.
WI Law Does Not Create Roving Castle Doctrine; NRA Wanted More
As written, the ALEC/NRA model provides legal immunity to a person "anywhere they have a right to be." This is why George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin on the street, was able to initially invoke Florida's law.
In adopting the ALEC/NRA model, Wisconsin narrowed its scope to only apply to the area around one's home or business (which includes lawns, swimming pools, and perhaps even sidewalks) and for when the shooter believes a person was unlawfully entering their property. James Spooner shot Darius Simmons on the street, which is just beyond the reach of the state's Castle Doctrine / shoot first law. Had the shooting happened just a few feet away -- on the sidewalk or Spooner's lawn -- and Spooner said the boy was unlawfully entering his property, the law could have come into play to prevent prosecution. Spooner has been charged with First Degree Homicide.
But if the NRA had its way, an expanded version of the legislation would have become law in Wisconsin, and potentially protected Spooner from being charged.
The New York Times reported on Wisconsin's law in April, writing: "Darren LaSorte, a lobbyist for the rifle association, wanted the legislation, like Florida's law, to extend protection to any place where a person had a legal right to be, said several Republican lawmakers who met with Mr. LaSorte. But having been successful in getting an earlier bill passed to allow the carrying of concealed weapons, Mr. LaSorte accepted a compromise."
Spooner, who is reportedly an NRA member, clearly had a "right to be" on the street in front of his home. If the NRA's preferred version of the law had been in place and Spooner told law enforcement he felt threatened by 13-year-old Darius, the law could arguably have been invoked to provide him immunity.
NRA All-In for Walker
In April, the NRA gave Governor Walker the Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award, honoring him for signing the Castle Doctrine/shoot first law and a concealed-carry law in 2011.
The NRA also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Scott Walker in his successful fight against recall. The group boasted that they were "fully vested in this race with a comprehensive campaign that included tens of millions of online ads and hundreds of thousands of television, radio and print ads before today's recall election. ... All-in-all, almost two million pieces of advocacy mail were sent and phone calls made in this remarkable victory for freedom."
Upon Walker's re-election on June 5, the NRA assured its members that "one of the strongest pro-gun Governors in the country will continue working to support our fundamental, individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms."