ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A murder case in Montana is attracting international attention to the debate over how far Americans may go when defending their homes. Today, Markus Kaarma pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering a German exchange student. Kaarma shot the 17-year-old after he sneaked into Kaarma's garage.
NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Kaarma's lawyer, Paul Ryan, says his client feels bad about the shooting. But he says the prosecutors in Missoula have no business charging him with murder. After all, that German student had been sneaking around Kaarma's garage at night.
PAUL RYAN: He couldn't be seen, it was so dark in there. And there was a noise, metal on metal noise and a fast-moving reaction. Marcus didn't know if he was being charged, if he was going to be shot, if he was going to be attacked. He had no idea what was going on.
KASTE: The German, who is called Diren Dede, may have been engaging in what local teens call garage hopping - they duck into open garages in search of beer or pot. Kaarma's house had been burglarized before, and he and his wife were on edge. But was he justified when he shot into the darkness?
RYAN: Basically, the rules changed. I mean, once he's on his property, Marcus felt that he, his life was in danger and he reacted.
KASTE: Ryan says he'll defend his client with Montana's version of the Castle Doctrine. That's the concept that a man's home is his castle and can be defended as such. Laws vary, but in recent years, the gun rights lobby has pushed states to give the benefit of the doubt to the homeowner. That's what the Montana legislature did in 2009.
MICHELE KEIFFER: All I feel it does is give them a right just to blow somebody away.
KASTE: Michele Keiffer had a son-in-law who was also shot and killed in a Montana garage back in 2012. He was there to have an argument and he ended up being shot by the home's resident. No charges were filed because of the Castle Doctrine. Ever since, Michele Keiffer has been trying to organize a movement to change that law back.
KEIFFER: It happened to my son-in-law and my eyes were opened. It's like, wow, you know, like I didn't know this.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE KRAYTON KERNS: Well, obviously, there's going to be moves to repeal it but I think that's a reactionary thing.
KASTE: This is state representative Krayton Kerns. He was the chief sponsor of the 2009 law. He says people are forgetting that the law still requires you to reasonably believe that force is necessary to prevent, quote, "a forcible felony." Based on news accounts, Kerns does not think his law excuses the Diren Dede shooting. And he says repealing the Castle Doctrine would give too much power back to prosecutors to decide what constitutes self-defense.
KERNS: It removes the fundamental right of self-defense or the option of self-defense for the individual, and shifts it to government. And that's just not gonna work.
KASTE: That attitude is widely held in Montana, but in the victim's home country of Germany, the reaction has been very different. Constantin van Lijnden is a law journalist there who's written about the case.
CONSTANTIN VAN LIJNDEN: And there is always this notion of Americans being a bit more trigger-happy, perhaps.
KASTE: He says there are some Germans who'll now think twice about sending their kids to the U.S., but he points out that German law also allows people to defend themselves with force, at home or on the street. He thinks the real difference between the countries is a practical one.
LIJNDEN: Obviously, a lot more people in America own guns than do in Germany. I mean, almost nobody does in Germany. So even in a worst-case scenario you're not very likely to get shot in Germany, just for lack of any guns.
KASTE: He says sneaking onto private property is a bad idea in any country, it's just that in America, the risks are a bit more severe.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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