It feels like it’s a rare occasion these days for any court with more than one judge to issue a unanimous decision, much less one that comes down on the side of our right to keep and bear arms, but that’s exactly what happened in New Hampshire on Monday as the state Supreme Court sided with a man who drew his gun to ward off an aggressor in a road rage incident, only to find himself charged (and convicted of a crime).
It was almost three years go when Joshua D. Shea’s was convicted on a single charge of criminal threatening with a deadly weapon, but the court has now thrown out that conviction after ruling that the judge overseeing the case erred by instructing the jury to consider whether Shea had the opportunity to retreat from the encounter. As the court pointed out in its ruling, lawmakers had removed any such duty to retreat from state statutes a decade earlier, and the judge had no basis to demand the jury consider the long-repealed law when weighing the evidence against Shea.
“After 2011, a person is justified in using deadly force when he reasonably believes that another person is about to use unlawful, deadly force against him, and he is not required to retreat if he is anywhere he has a right to be and was not the initial aggressor,” wrote Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi.
Shea claims he pulled his gun after another driver threatened to “beat his ass” following a close call on Route 28 in Epsom, according to the ruling’s recitation of the case. While the complainant claimed Shea pointed the gun at him, Shea testified he merely showed the gun to warn the other man off.
The incident started when the other man pulled his car in front of Shea’s truck as they drove on Route 28, forcing Shea to slam on his brakes and hit his horn. After the two men “exchanged middle fingers” they both pulled into a gas station parking lot off a traffic circle, according to the ruling.
In the gas station parking lot, according to Shea’s testimony at trial, the complainant began “aggressively swearing and saying he was going to . . . rip (Shea) out of [his] car.”
Shea further testified that the complainant said he would “beat (Shea’s) ass,” and asked the defendant to pull into the parking lot next door where there were no cameras.
At this point, Shea testified, the complainant began walking toward Shea’s truck and he was in serious fear for his safety. Shea testified he unclipped his pistol from its holster and warned the other driver he had a gun. Shea says he brought the gun up to his chest to show the man the gun, while the other man claimed Shea pointed the gun at him.
Despite the fact that no duty to retreat exists in New Hampshire law, Judge Andrew Schulman still informed the jury that one of the factors in the case was whether Shea “could have completely and safely left the area without any risk to himself or others.” In doing so, the judges ruled, Schulman went above and beyond what is allowed by law and contradicted what the state legislature has had to say about retreating in the face of danger; namely, that there is no requirement to do so if they were not the initial aggressor. Even when deadly force is not used, merely the display of a firearm to prevent the threat from escalating, the gun owner has no duty to retreat or present their back to the individual threatening to commit an act of violence against them.
I have to say, it’s nice to be able to cover a decision involving our right to self-defense that doesn’t include anti-gun judges trying to twist the law to suit their own purpose. Granted, four of the five justices on the court were appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, but even the lone justice named to the bench by Democrat John Lynch didn’t try to play any games with the decision. The five justices all made it clear that folks who aren’t the aggressor are not compelled to walk, run, or drive away instead of taking steps to lawfully protect themselves, and I’m glad that the court reiterated that fact in no uncertain terms. Hopefully Schulman’s jury instruction was just an aberration to begin with, but now there’s no excuse for any other Granite State judge to assert a duty to retreat that doesn’t exist in state law, and that’s a big win for those of us who believe in the human right of self-defense.