Utah law allows gun owners to use deadly force in many cases

By LINDSAY WHITEHURST and BRADY McCOMBS
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Police say two Utah men fatally shot would-be criminals a few miles apart over the weekend, but neither shooter is expected to face charges in a gun-friendly state that was one of the first to pass a "Stand Your Ground"-style law more than 20 years ago.
 
In the first shooting, a man who holds a concealed carry permit intervened when a carjacking suspect jumped into a woman's vehicle in Orem Saturday morning. The suspect was shot lunging for the bystander's gun, police say.
 
Hours later, a homeowner in Pleasant Grove shot a man who pounded on his front door in the middle of the night, then climbed to a second-floor balcony and attempted to force his way in, police say.
 
Prosecutors have yet to review the cases, but police and legal experts say the shooters will likely be cleared of wrongdoing, since Utah allows the use of deadly force in many circumstances.
 
"The law doesn't require you to sit back and ask questions," Greg Skordas, a Utah defense attorney and former prosecutor, said Tuesday.
 
Utah's law was revised in 1994 to extend protections for use of deadly force in public without a duty to walk away -- more than a decade before Florida passed its well-known "Stand Your Ground" law in 2005, Laura Cutilletta, a Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence attorney, said. Since then, at least 30 states have enacted similar self-defense laws.
 
Cutilletta said it sets "a very dangerous normal" by making "people feel like it's kind of their job to do the work that police should be doing."
 
But gun rights advocates say the weekend shootings show that Utah's laws allow responsible gun owners to protect themselves and others.
 
"We place a much higher value on innocent life than we do on someone who is committing a heinous crime such as robbery," defense attorney Mitch Vilos said.
 
He said the man who shot the carjacker in Orem should be covered by Utah law, since he was both stopping a forcible felony and faced an imminent threat of bodily injury.
 
Opponents, however, have said that deadly force shouldn't be protected in such a case, since the suspect was unarmed and carjacking convictions don't result in the death penalty. 
 
The shooter "was someone who shot a defenseless man," the suspect's mother said in a statement released by police that didn't include her name.
 
The man who shot the trespasser on his balcony 5 miles away in Pleasant Grove should be on even more firm legal ground, Skordas said. Though laws about self-defense in public have shifted to grant more protections, gun owners have long had more latitude to defend themselves at home, he said.
 
Police aren't releasing the names of the shooters.
 
Both cases will be reviewed by the Utah County attorney's office to determine whether criminal charges should be filed. Officials expect to receive police reports next week.
 
For Vilos, the defense lawyer, firearms instructor and author of "Self Defense Laws of All 50 States," it should be an easy decision based on the information released.
 
"What message do we want to get to get across?" he asked. "Do want to tell innocent people that they are at risk of being prosecuted for defending themselves?" 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press modified.


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