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Missouri Self-Defense Laws Under Fire After Ralph Yarl Shooting

Many in the state argue that the state’s lax gun control laws have contributed to an environment in which residents are too comfortable pulling the trigger. The Republican-majority state Legislature has not signaled they will change the laws.

The gofundme page for Ralph Yarl
Screenshot of a GoFundMe site started to raise money for Ralph Yarl's medical bills and other expenses.
(GoFundMe screenshot/TNS)
(TNS) — Missouri state Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern has been sounding the alarm for years over the state’s loose gun laws and in February introduced a bill limiting the scope of Missouri’s “stand your ground” law. The bill went nowhere.

Over the weekend, Nurrenbernas, who is white, found herself explaining to her adopted 9-year-old son, who is Black, the shooting of Ralph Yarl – a Black 16-year-old Kansas City student who is alleged to have been shot twice by a white homeowner in the Northland after ringing the doorbell of a residence while looking for his brothers. Yarl has since been released from hospital care and is recovery at home.

“I think we now have a shoot first, ask later policy in this state, or at least that is what people have interpreted it to be,” said Nurrenbern, a Democrat who represents a swath of the Northland.

And now, she said, “we have a young boy who is fighting for his life because of what we have perpetuated by our lax gun laws.”

Anger has been building in the wake of the shooting, in part because of a sense among Democrats, gun control activists and some residents that the state’s gun laws have contributed to an atmosphere where residents feel too comfortable pulling the trigger. Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the Missouri House and Senate, signaled they have no plans to narrow the state’s gun laws and voiced confidence in the justice system — a local prosecutor announced charges late Monday.

“These shoot first laws, stand your ground laws – they’re harmful and they’re dangerous policies that give people a license to kill,” said Carthesa Dillard, a volunteer with the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action whose 19-year-old son was shot and killed in 2017 and 18-year-old brother was shot and killed in 2014.

Asked Sunday whether any self-defense laws may apply in the Clay County shooting, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said only “that’s a potential.” Attorneys have cast doubt on whether the state’s self-defense laws would apply, but it would be up to the shooter to raise the defense.

“You can’t just shoot people who come to your door,” Missouri criminal defense attorney Kevin Jamison told the Star on Monday.

Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson said Monday evening charges have been filed against Andrew D. Lester, an 84-year-old white man, over the shooting. Speaking at a news conference, Thompson said Lester was not yet in custody.

Thompson said Lester could face life in prison if convicted. He said there was a racial component to the shooting.

Missouri has a robust self-defense law – parts of which are referred to as both the “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” – that give people wide latitude to use deadly force if they reasonably believe they are about to be attacked. Lawmakers passed Missouri’s original “castle doctrine” law in 2007, allowing homeowners to defend themselves in their own homes without first trying to retreat.

In 2016 the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly, overriding the veto of then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, approved what is commonly called the state’s “stand your ground” law, which allows individuals to use force in self-defense without retreating in any location where they have the right to be.

Missouri passed a “stand your ground” law following the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a Black teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmeran in Florida. Zimmerman was charged with murder but acquitted after claiming self-defense. Missouri is one of at least 28 states, including Kansas, with some form of a “stand your ground” law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A 2022 study conducted by researchers at Oxford University, the University of Pennsylvania and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, found that Missouri’s gun homicide rate increased significantly after the state’s “stand your ground” law was enacted. States with “stand your ground” laws like Missouri, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, saw increases in homicide rates range from 16.2 to 33.5 percent, according to the study.

“Ultimately, this tragic incident underscores why ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policies like so-called ‘stand your ground’ laws do far more harm than good. These laws breed a society of violence and fear while providing cover for those who harm, maim and kill others,” state Rep. Marlene Terry, a St. Louis Democrat who chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement.

Missouri Lawmakers Have Loosened Gun Laws

Republican lawmakers are offering few indications they plan to reassess Missouri’s self-defense laws following the shooting of Yarl, even as Democrats call for changes. A spokeswoman for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, didn’t respond Monday to a request for comment.

In the last couple years, Republican legislators have offered bills that would create the presumption that individuals who claim to have used force in self-defense believed force was necessary. These bills would make prosecuting individuals who claim self-defense so difficult that opponents, including prosecutors, have denounced the measures as the “Make Murder Legal Act.”

Two measures have been filed this year, but neither has received a hearing. State Rep. Ben Baker, a Neosho Republican who has filed one of the bills, said that while Yarl’s shooting was tragic, he doesn’t support efforts to “water down” the stand your ground law.

Baker framed his bill as a way to strengthen the law, preventing long, drawn-out trials where defendants must prove that they acted in self-defense.

“It seems as though someone reacted prematurely — not knowing and not investigating what the situation was…it’s a terrible situation where people reacted in such a way,” Baker said, referring to Yarl’s shooting. “But I don’t think that negates the purpose and, you know, the value of our stand your ground law for law-abiding citizens either. People make mistakes in a lot of different ways.”

Missouri House Majority Leader Jonathan Patterson, a Lee’s Summit Republican, said the shooting of Yarl “is a tragedy.”

“I think we need to get all of the facts and let the justice system do its work,” Patterson said in a statement.

Missouri Republicans have consistently pushed to loosen gun laws in recent years.

In 2021, Parson signed into the law the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which declared certain federal gun laws invalid if they didn’t have equivalent in state law. A federal judge found the law unconstitutional earlier this year, but Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, plans to appeal.

Lawmakers removed requirements that individuals have permits to carry concealed weapons in 2016, in addition to approving the “stand your ground” law. Two years earlier, lawmakers overrode Nixon’s veto to lower the minimum wage to have a concealed weapon from 21 to 19.

“Unfortunately, the reaction from Republicans in the Legislature to horrific shootings has been to make Missouri more dangerous for kids and families,” state Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat whose district includes the shooting site, said in a statement.

At Arthur’s request, the Missouri Senate held a moment of silence for Yarl on Monday.

“Even right now, there is legislation pending in the Missouri House that prosecutors have dubbed the ‘Make Murder Legal Act’ because it removes the requirement that a shooter present a claim of self-defense,” Arthur said.

State Rep. Josh Hurlbert, a Smithville Republican whose district includes the site of the shooting, said in a text message that he was praying for Ralph and his family. “I fully trust the KCPD and the Clay County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to investigate and review the facts of the case and take any appropriate action,” he said.

Yarl’s family and police have said he was asked by a parent to pick up his brothers from an address on 115th Terrace. Instead he went to a residence in the 1100 block of 115th Street, where he was shot.

More than 200 people marched through the Northland on Sunday demanding justice for Yarl. Nurrenbern, the state legislator, said she asked her son whether he wanted to go to the march.

“He didn’t. He just wants to be a kid,” Nurrenbern said. “The beauty about kids is they want their innocence and they should have their innocence.”

*Editor's Note: This article was updated on Wednesday, April 19, to reflect that Ralph Yarl has since been released from the hospital and is in recovery.

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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