Aim to carry a gun? Best carry skill, knowledge and wisdom too

Described as a "brazen attack" in "broad daylight" by the Anchorage Police Department, the recent assault and robbery of a woman in a parking lot near Northway Mall is one of the latest incidents to prompt private and public discussion about crime in the city. An eyewitness to the alarming robbery emailed me. She wrote:

"I felt more vulnerable after this week's experience here in town than I ever have during my 44 years in Alaska living in the Homer area. There are several women I have spoken with since this incident who are a little leery now in parking lots after something like this happened in broad daylight. … I am a hunter and longtime rifle owner. I have never thought about arming myself for self-defense, but after this situation I certainly am considering it. Today I bought pepper spray to carry with me at all times."

She asked me if I could direct her to information "about becoming an armed citizen." I'm guessing she may not be alone in her newfound concern. Before looking at some of Alaska's relevant laws, permit me a disclosure and disclaimer.

[Has SB 91 affected crime rates? Anchorage police say it's not clear]

The disclosure is that I carry — concealed and open — depending on the circumstances. I didn't grow up with guns. I began hunting after moving to Alaska in 1985 when I was already an adult. It was years after that before I began carrying a gun for personal protection. I've chosen to complete training on gun safety and proficiency, laws governing deadly force, and shoot-don't shoot scenarios. I plan on more training. I practice at ranges. I personally believe safe and proficient firearm self-protection is a huge responsibility and a degradable skill.

The disclaimer is that this article is not intended, nor should it be taken as, legal advice.

Based on my emailer's concern, this article focuses on handguns and deadly force. (There are some separate laws governing possession of long guns.) Even then, space limitations mean this is just an introduction and doesn't cover all of Alaska's laws on guns and force.

Alaska law prohibits possession of a firearm by an unemancipated minor under 16 years old without the consent of a parent or guardian. It also prohibits carrying a firearm concealed if you're under 21 years of age. [AS 11.61.220(a)(3), (6)]

By the way, federal law prohibits the possession of a handgun or handgun ammunition by any person under the age of 18. [18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(2), (5)] There are some exceptions – such as the temporary transfer and possession of handguns and handgun ammunition for specified activities, including employment, ranching, farming, target practice and hunting. [18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(3)] If you see an inconsistency here between federal and state law, you're right. It isn't the only one. Just ask your local cannabis store owner.

[Buying a gun for self-protection? Ask yourself these questions first]

Alaska has statutes about when you can use force, including deadly, to defend yourself or someone else. For nondeadly force, see AS 11.81.300.

A person may use deadly force in self-defense when the person reasonably believes it's necessary to defend against

1) death;

2) serious physical injury;

3) kidnapping;

4) sexual assault in the first degree;

5) sexual assault in the second degree;

6) sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree; or

7) robbery in any degree. [AS 11.81.335]

Whether or not a person's belief is "reasonable" depends on whether the person subjectively believed deadly force was necessary and a reasonable person would believe that under the same circumstances.

In 2013, Alaska enacted what's commonly referred to as a "stand your ground" law. Under 11.81.335(b)(5), there is no duty to retreat from any place you have a right to be before using deadly force.

My emailer said she's begun carrying pepper spray while she thinks about arming herself with a gun. I've previously written about pepper spray selection and other self-defense measures.

We're each responsible for knowing the law governing our use of force. I encourage Alaskans to look at all the statutes themselves. At http://codes.findlaw.com/ak/ you can find the statutes organized by subject area, and our state constitution. When it comes to actually using deadly firearm force, nothing takes the place of training and practice in gun safety, proficiency, and realistic shoot/don't shoot scenarios.

For my part, I have no intention of using any kind of force, even if justified, to defend myself or someone else if I have a smarter, safer alternative. That's why I'm grateful to the women and men who don a badge and willingly go in harm's way to protect the rest of us. But as we're seeing, they can't be everywhere all the time. That leaves each of us to make informed decisions about whether to arm ourselves for our own and others' protection.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes for law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals and groups nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

Val Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.