FARMINGTON — People ask Andrew Robinson, a prosecutor in Franklin County, about Maine’s self-defense laws all the time.

When he spoke at a Rotary Club meeting last year, most members wanted advice about defending themselves with a firearm. Similar pleas for legal counsel prompted him to distribute copies of self-defense laws at a community crime forum in January.

With national headlines in recent weeks about the fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, however, Robinson is worried debates about that state’s self-defense laws will confuse people elsewhere, including in Maine.

Although most people know each state follows its own self-defense laws, such emotional and public discussion about Florida’s version — the so-called stand your ground law — is sure to raise further questions, Robinson said.

Robinson, 41, noted that differences between Maine’s laws and those in Florida make it important for people to familiarize themselves with their state’s laws, get the appropriate firearm permits and attend training and educational courses on self defense.

He said the Florida shooting “makes it very clear of the need to be able to explain why you used deadly force and prove it was justified.”

James Billings, an Augusta defense attorney, described Maine’s self-defense laws as a shield instead of a sword, making it difficult to justify using deadly force under circumstances being argued in Florida.

Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 in a gated Sanford, Fla., community by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who claims he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested or charged, the Associated Press reported.

Robinson, a 12-year veteran Franklin County assistant district attorney, said he can’t talk about how the law is interpreted and ongoing cases. In general, though, each case is looked at differently under Maine’s self-defense laws, Robinson said.

A person who claims they acted in self-defense is judged based on how the laws apply to the particular situation, with each detail and fact getting scrutinized in court, Robinson said.

“These things all have to be put in context,” he said.
A shield, not a sword

A broad spectrum of situations where people are in harm’s way are addressed by Maine’s self-defense laws, which define when people are justified in defending themselves, others and their homes, according to Augusta defense attorney Billings.

Billings, 47, has been an attorney in Maine for about 10 years, representing clients in a variety of cases, including several murder trials. He will also be speaking about self-defense laws at a firearms training course in Belgrade later this month.

Billings, like Robinson, believes a lot of people have misconceptions about the laws. The defense attorney’s biggest concern is people who build their approach to self-defense based on one example, regardless of the details.

“It’s not as clear cut as people think,” Billings said.

When it comes to justifying the use of deadly force, the Maine laws set different rules based on the location and other circumstances that led to the confrontation.

For instance, the laws look at some factors tied to using deadly force differently when someone is inside their home, with the differences consisting of the type of crime being committed along with other criteria, Billings said.

He noted that most Maine legal precedents, however, have established that there are very few scenarios where using deadly force is legally justified.

“Most of the case law makes it clear that the self defense (laws) is a shield and not a sword and intended to use the minimum amount of force to avoid the harm,” Billings said.

Maine’s self-defense laws, which require a person to attempt to avoid confrontations under most circumstances, differ from the “stand your ground” law in Florida and other states, he said.

In Maine, the laws say that if someone can retreat safely they are not authorized to use deadly force, unless they are inside their home and meet the criteria for that scenario, Billings said. The stand your ground law doesn’t have the retreat clause, he added.

Billings plans to tell people at the firearms training course they should begin by thinking about a simple rule when it comes to firing a weapon at another person, regardless of the circumstances.

“You have to really believe that your life is on the line or someone else’s life is on the line,” he said.

Awareness and avoidance

When there are high-profile shootings and violent crimes in the news, people flock to self-defense classes and firearms training courses, according to Gary Hilliard, who runs a firearms training school in Belgrade.

Hilliard, 57, has yet to have any students who give the Florida shooting as the reason they signed up for his classes, but he added that confusion surrounding the shooting is exactly what drives people to learn more about firearm safety.

A majority of the students are between the ages of 35 and 50 at Protection Training Associates, the Belgrade firearm safety school where Billings is speaking this month.

Hilliard describes his students as typically affluent people who have been motivated by some event in their lives to look into buying a firearm for personal protection.

“A third of them have never fired a weapon but they have that concern about being safe in their home,” he said.

Hilliard describes himself as a businessman who owns several Subway sandwich shops and a Cold Stone Creamery, all in Maine. He said he never really thought about firearms safety courses until about four years ago.

Then something changed his life.

Hilliard is a close friend of the Guerrette family, whose Pittston home was invaded in 2008.

William G. Guerrette Jr., then 48, and Nicole Guerrette, then 10, were critically injured by a machete attack during the home invasion. They have undergone numerous surgeries on their long road to recovery, Hilliard said.

The attacks motivated Hilliard to get serious about firearms training. He attended courses and seminars across the country, getting a National Rifle Association certification as an instructor.

Hilliard built the firearms training school, which includes shooting ranges and classrooms, on his property in Belgrade where he lives with his wife, Julie.

His classes feature lessons on everything from firearms safety to making a home less attractive to burglars. They touch on Maine self-defense laws in general terms, but the focus is on personal safety techniques and proper firearm handling practices, he said.

Hilliard described the classes as giving people tools to become more aware of their surroundings and avoid dangerous situations altogether.

“In these courses, I teach that avoidance of a confrontation is obviously the first thing they should be worried about,” he said.

David F. Robinson — 861-9287
[email protected]