Thirteen Carroll County citizens got a crash course last night in the laws on gun possession and self-defense from the man who enforces them locally, county State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes.
"I believe it is everybody's absolute right to own a firearm," Barnes told the group at the outset. "However, it's important because of my oath of office to do everything I can do to make sure you are aware of the law -- and it is voluminous.
"We don't want to see anyone end up in [court] for a situation that could have easily been avoided."
Barnes, a longtime National Rifle Association member and a former Green Beret, has been teaching the course since he took office in 1995. It is offered about six times a year at the Carroll County sheriff's office in conjunction with NRA safety and shooting courses.
Barnes compiled an inch-thick booklet that outlines almost 60 state laws -- plus federal restrictions -- on purchases, registration, transportation and storing guns away from minors. The booklet also lists banned weapons, such as machine guns and assault pistols.
Titled "Handgun/Firearms Safety and the Law," the information is being prepared for publication on the Internet, possibly by autumn, Barnes said.
"This book which Jerry put together is an extremely valuable tool because it explains how Draconian and complex the laws are in this state," said W. James Meyer, a Carroll County deputy sheriff and NRA instructor who introduced Barnes.
The NRA started education programs after the 1988 "Saturday Night Special law," Meyer said. "We saw the need to educate people in the use of firearms, and it helps them to see both sides."
"A large majority of people who live in this county have firearms in their homes," Barnes said in an interview before last night's class. "We don't want people getting arrested for offenses that they commit innocently and could have avoided."
In the small classroom, the prosecutor first ran through the laws and restrictions on gun ownership and use, provoking occasional laughter from the group. He also warned that state's attorneys might have different approaches to enforcing gun-possession laws.
"And none of this affects the criminal, which is what we're all here for. We're afraid in our houses," said Shirley Kern, 63, of Baltimore County, who spent 14 years in the U.S. foreign service in Europe, Australia and Beirut, Lebanon.
Her move to Maryland in 1996 has been frightening, and she's going to buy a gun, Kern said. "I wanted to learn about the law because I am definitely going to do it," she said.
Most of the questions directed to Barnes last night concerned crime and self-defense.
"It really takes a case-by-case investigation," he told the class.
Barnes said there are limits on the use of deadly force and a duty to retreat from a situation, such as an odd person on the street or road-rage incidents.
Then there's the "castle doctrine," he said, which does not require retreat by a homeowner or business owner who faces death or serious injury on his own property.
"If there is imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death, you can utilize deadly force to protect yourself or your family," Barnes said.
"You can never justify using deadly force to protect personal property. So if someone is stealing your vehicle, you can't stick your head out the window and shoot a gun at them, although you might feel like doing that.
"You can display a weapon. And if they turn around and come at you with a tire iron, shoot them. Shoot them, and be real consistent with your story. You are on your own property," Barnes said.
If the suspect chooses to run, he told Gary Lienesch of Westminster, "let him, and don't fire a shot up in the air."
That's something he won't tolerate, Barnes said, noting the common Fourth of July practice "when you see people go out in their yards and shoot straight up.
"Now, that rifle or that pistol has a range of more than a mile. That projectile goes up and comes down, and it will kill somebody if it hits the right way. That's second-degree murder in my book," Barnes said.