Gun laws and Guam's Castle Doctrine
It happened again. Shots rang out. Children ran for their lives. Bodies fell.
The horrific school shooting that killed 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas has been added to America’s growing gun violence statistics. The shocking part is that mass shootings at schools have become such a common slice of American life that they have lost their shock value. They have seemingly numbed Americans.
Over the years, the gun control debate has peaked and waned. With gun ownership rooted in the Second Amendment, the debate always hits a stalemate.
Because of America’s weak gun laws, it’s easy for U.S. residents to obtain a gun, sometimes without any sort of background check. The Uvalde gunman easily and legally purchased two AR-15-style rifles— notwithstanding the lack of a sensible reason to allow an 18-year-old to own such weapons.
The U.S. has 46 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns, according to a 2018 report by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey.
From 1998 through 2019, the U.S. recorded 101 mass shootings, according to a study by William Paterson University. And, according to the latest statistics, there has been a total of 288 school shootings in the U.S. so far this year.
Logic hints that there are more gun-related homicides in places where firearm policies are loose. But gun-rights advocates insist statistics do not prove a causal link.
Other countries, including Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Norway, have tightened their gun laws after being stung by mass shootings.
“When, in God’s name, are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” President Biden asked after the Uvalde shooting.
It is, of course, a rhetorical question.
Fortunately, this issue is not as polarizing on Guam as it is on the mainland. Guam prides itself on having one of the strictest gun laws in the U.S. One needs to get an FBI background check and clearance from ATF. Guam law doesn't authorize civilian residents to possess a fully automatic weapon. Only SWAT or other law enforcement agents are allowed to own this weapon.
But while gun ownership does not take center stage in Guam’s public discourse, the related issue of self-defense tends to cleave our community.
Earlier this year, Sen. Joe San Agustin introduced Bill 12-36, which proposes to amend Guam’s five-year-old Castle Doctrine law to eliminate the requirement for retreating before resorting to a deadly response.
This proposal, which has been introduced and defeated in previous legislatures, triggers the same fervor as the gun debate.
In earlier statements, San Agustin sought to reassure the community that his bill does not seek to “to open up the wild, wild west in Guam. It does not give you the license to kill.”
But it’s a slippery slope.
Even Guam’s legal sector gave this bill the thumbs down, citing studies indicating that “such laws did not deter theft, burglary or assault and that states with such laws have higher homicide and firearm homicide rates.”
But why do we need to tamper with the Castle Doctrine when Guam’s current self-defense statutes are solid enough to provide legal protection for those who feel the need to employ lethal force to defend themselves against imminent danger?
“I don’t know why Guam wants to be like Georgia or Texas or other places with stand-your-ground laws,” former public defender Phillip Tydingco said, testifying against Bill 12-36.
Under Guam law, deadly force may be used in self-defense under threat of death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or rape, but one is required to retreat before resorting to deadly self-defense. When self-defense is claimed, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that self-defense did not occur.
Tydingco, a self-confessed gun owner who also served as a prosecutor, argued that there is nothing wrong with retreating to de-escalate a dangerous situation.
Inserting a new clause, Tydingco said, would only render ambiguity and inconsistency in Guam's self-defense law. Bill 12-36, if enacted into law, would turn Guam into a “shoot-first-ask-question-later" jurisdiction that would scare away the island's visitors. This is not the community we want Guam to become.