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Could Missouri’s ‘stand your ground’ law apply to the Super Bowl celebration shooters?

By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, SUMMER BALLENTINE and JIM SALTER, HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, SUMMER BALLENTINE and JIM SALTER, Associated Press
Published: February 27, 2024, 8:03am
2 Photos
FILE - A person views a memorial dedicated to the victims of last week&rsquo;s mass shooting in front of Union Station, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Missouri prosecutors said Tuesday, Feb. 20, that two men have been charged with murder in last week&rsquo;s shooting that killed one person and injured multiple others after the Kansas City Chiefs&rsquo; Super Bowl parade.
FILE - A person views a memorial dedicated to the victims of last week’s mass shooting in front of Union Station, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Missouri prosecutors said Tuesday, Feb. 20, that two men have been charged with murder in last week’s shooting that killed one person and injured multiple others after the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) Photo Gallery

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The man accused of firing the first shots at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl rally told authorities he felt threatened, while a second man said he pulled the trigger because someone was shooting at him, according to court documents.

Experts say that even though the shooting left one bystander dead and roughly two dozen people injured, 23-year-old Lyndell Mays and 18-year-old Dominic Miller might have good cases for self-defense through the state’s “stand your ground” law.

Missouri is among more than 30 states that have adopted some version of stand your ground laws over the past two decades, said Robert Spitzer, a professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Cortland, whose research focuses on gun policy and politics. While earlier laws allowed people to use force to protect themselves in their homes, stand your ground provides even broader self-defense rights regardless of the location.

Now, the mass shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl celebration could be a new test of those expanded protections, and comes as self-defense already is at the center of another high-profile Kansas City shooting that left Ralph Yarl wounded.

“This illustrates in a dramatic way the fundamental problem, especially when it’s a public gathering where there are thousands and thousands of people, and even a highly trained police officer often cannot avoid injuring others in a gunfire exchange in a public place,” said Spitzer, who wrote the book “Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights.”

Trial attorney Daniel Ross described the stand your ground law as a “formidable defense” that he and many other Kansas City defense attorneys anticipate will be used in Mays’ and Miller’s cases. He said the law puts the onus on the prosecution to disprove claims that a shooting is lawful self-defense.

“Collateral damage under Missouri law is excused if you’re actually engaged in lawful self-defense and there’s other folks injured,” he said.

There are limits to the defense, however, said Eric Ruben, a law professor at the S.M.U. Dedman School of Law in Dallas who has written on stand your ground and self-defense immunity.

“Even though Missouri has robust stand-your-ground laws, that doesn’t mean you can spray bullets into a crowd in the name of defending yourself or others,” Ruben said.

The barrage of gunfire Feb. 14 outside Kansas City’s historic Union Station happened as the celebration that drew an estimated 1 million fans was concluding. A woman died while watching the rally with her family, and nearly two dozen others — more than half of them children — were injured and survived.

Kansas City already was grappling with the shooting of Yarl, a Black teenager, who survived a bullet wound to the head when he went to the wrong house in April 2023 to pick up his brothers. Andrew Lester, an 85-year-old white man, is planning to claim self-defense when he goes to trial in October. His attorney said the retiree was terrified by the stranger on his doorstep.

While the Super Bowl celebration shooting was a far different scenario, it raises anew questions about how far people can go to protect themselves and what happens when the innocent become victims.

Mays and Miller are each charged with second-degree murder and other counts.

Probable cause statements suggest that both men felt threatened. Mays said he picked out one person in a group at random and started shooting because they said, “I’m going to get you,” and he took that to mean, “I’m going to kill you,” the statement said.

Miller said under questioning that he fired four or five times because someone was shooting at him. His friend, Marques Harris, told WDAF-TV that Miller was only trying to protect him after he was shot in the neck.

Miller’s attorney didn’t return phone and email messages seeking comment. No attorney was listed for Mays in online court records.

Two juveniles also face gun-related and resisting arrest charges.

Missouri has few firearm regulations, and two of its cities — Kansas City and St. Louis — annually have among the nation’s highest homicide rates. Missouri’s current Republican lawmakers have largely defended the state’s gun laws, instead blaming prosecutors and other local elected officials in the two cities.

And Republican Gov. Mike Parson, speaking to reporters last week, cited societal problems — not guns — as the reason for the violence. “I believe it’s much more than a gun,” he said.

When Republican lawmakers in 2016 expanded the state’s already-extensive self-defense protections by enacting the current stand your ground law, Black Missouri lawmakers raised concerns. The law also allowed most adults to carry concealed guns without a permit.

Racial disparities are rife among those who invoke the defense, with an Urban Institute study showing white shooters are more likely to benefit than Black defendants.

The issue was raised when Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teen, was acquitted of killing two people and wounding a third during a 2020 protest against racism and police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after testifying he acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse’s actions became a flashpoint in the debate over guns, vigilantism and racial injustice in the U.S.

The 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old, by George Zimmerman also spurred a landmark case involving Florida’s stand your ground law. Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who thought Martin looked suspicious, was acquitted.

In Georgia, which also has a stand your ground law, three white men accused of fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 claimed self-defense. Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan claimed they chased Arbery, who was Black, because they thought he was a burglar. All three were convicted of murder.

In 2022, Wichita, Kansas, area district attorney Marc Bennett was critical of the state’s stand your ground law when he announced that he wouldn’t file charges over the death of Cedric Lofton, a Black 17-year-old who was restrained facedown for more than 30 minutes at a juvenile detention center. Bennett said the law prevented him from bringing charges because staff members were protecting themselves.

With the Chiefs parade case unfolding, it is time to look anew at these laws, said Melba Pearson, a former homicide prosecutor who is now the director of prosecution projects at the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.

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“What are truly the limits in terms of stand your ground and what really falls into the category of self-defense?” she asked. “Do we need to revisit what stand your ground looks like?”

Ballentine reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.

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