A leisurely float trip on Missouri’s Meramec River this weekend turned violent when a landowner confronted two men who had stopped on a gravel bar on his property to relieve themselves. The dispute quickly escalated from a spat over who owned the property and who should leave. It ended with a deadly gunshot.
James Robert Crocker, 59, the property owner, has been charged with second-degree murder in Saturday’s shooting death of Paul Franklin Dart, 48, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Crocker reportedly had been frustrated by trespassers coming from the river onto his property, and approached Dart and his wife’s cousin, who were urinating, with a 9 mm handgun, according to the newspaper. Witnesses said Crocker fired one shot in the air and another toward the ground near the men during the verbal altercation. When the cousin picked up a rock or rocks, Crocker fired again — this time shooting Dart, an unarmed Army veteran and carpenter, in the face in front of his nearby family.
“I just shot the one closest to me,” Crocker said, according to police who spoke to the Post-Dispatch.
The case is sure to spark debate of Missouri’s “Stand Your Ground” law, legislation that has been under fire in recent weeks after the trial and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin. On Friday, President Obama called on states to review such legislation, which allows for justified shooting as a means of self-defense. Florida is just one of many states with Stand Your Ground laws, including Missouri, Kansas and even Illinois, where Obama — then a U.S. senator — co-sponsored the legislation.
What justifies asserting Stand Your Ground law as a defense?
“In the state of Kansas, it’s all about reasonableness,” Tom Stolz, Wichita police deputy chief, told the Wichita Eagle. Stolz said that means reasonable belief that force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.
Enacted in 2006, Kansas’ law is rarely applied, but allows people the option to defend themselves rather than retreat from a hostile encounter, the Eagle reported.
In the Meramec River shooting, Crocker appears to have overreacted to the situation — firing pent up frustration at an unarmed man in the heat of a mismatched squabble. Key in the case could be whether Crocker really was defending himself, as well as his property from trespassers. In Missouri, legal experts say property rights along rivers are not cut and dry, with many decisions on property boundaries made on a case-by-case basis.
“These cases are really very confusing. They are difficult to interpret,” Harry Styron, a Missouri lawyer, told the Post-Dispatch. “You are on private property, but you have a right to be there if it’s a navigable stream and as long as you are on a gravel bar that is submerged during parts of the year, because it’s part of the stream bed.”
Kansas has three navigable rivers — the Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas — which are open to the public.
The rest, including the Marais des Cygnes — known to many local residents simply as “Ol’ Mary” — are privately owned, and people must have the permission of the property owners to legally be on them, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s website. That means nearly everyone floating down the river that runs through Ottawa is doing so illegally.
“Because all the land on the Marais des Cygnes is privately owned, you would have to have each landowner give them permission to go down the river,” a Kansas natural resource officer told The Herald previously.
Regardless of whether the men on the Meramec River float trip were trespassing, the punishment shouldn’t have been death. Cases like Crocker’s shooting of Dart give Stand Your Ground laws, as well as similarly well-intentioned self-defense legislation, a bad name. They tarnish the image of law-abiding gun owners as hot-headed cowboys and executioners.
Gun might beat rock, but let’s hope logic and reason are the real winners in this sad situation, which easily could have been avoided if cooler heads and a calmer trigger finger had prevailed.
— Tommy Felts, managing editor