Self-Defense By Firearm Is Justified, As Long As You’re Not A Felon

The North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that self-defense is not a justification for possession of a firearm by a felon under the North Carolina Felony Firearms Act.

Photo by Paul Weaver (Flickr)

Without exception, a felon in this state found in possession of a firearm will be prosecuted under the North Carolina Felony Firearms Act.  While some states allow for felony possession of a firearm for the purpose of self-defense, it is clear after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Monroe on January 23, 2015 that there is no such exception to the Act in this state.

Defendant-Appellant Antonio Alonzo Monroe (“Monroe”) was indicted for first-degree murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, and for attaining the status of a habitual felon.  On the date of the shooting, Monroe was at his uncle’s house when the victim told Monroe that he was going to “turn the heat upon” him.  There is conflicting evidence as to whether the victim had a gun with him when he returned to the residence, but Monroe’s uncle brought a gun from his bedroom, and Monroe took it.  Monroe stayed in the doorway while the two parties talked.  When the visitor approached and hit him, Monroe shot him five times, killing him.

At trial, defense counsel’s request for a jury instruction on self-defense as to the charge of possession of a firearm by a felon was denied.  In April 2013, Monroe was found not guilty of first-degree murder, but was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon and of attaining the status of a habitual felon.  Monroe appealed his convictions, as well as the issue of whether the jury should have received instructions as to his use of a firearm for the purpose of self-defense.

The North Carolina Felony Firearms Act makes it a crime for any felon “to purchase, own, possess, or have in his or her care, custody, or control any firearm or weapon of mass death and destruction.”  Included in the Act’s definition of “firearm” are silencers and mufflers, which means that a felon’s possession of these items alone will also trigger its penalties.  The Act is intentionally broad in the felonies that it covers and the types of firearms that it prohibits.

While the statute has become more restrictive over time, in 1975 the North Carolina General Assembly changed the law in order to allow a felon to possess a firearm five years after the date of his or her conviction.  At that time, a felon could possess a firearm in his or her home or lawful place of business.  In 2004 the General Assembly repealed those provisions.  According to the State, this repeal further evinces the legislature’s intent to broaden the Act’s impact and to keep firearms out of the hands of felons.  In 2011, the General Assembly amended the language of the law to allow for one who has been convicted of a felony, but whose rights have been restored, to possess a firearm.  Since the 2011 amendment, the Act has remained unchanged.

On appeal, Monroe asserted that there should be a self-defense exception to the Act, even if one had not existed in the past.  He argued for a similar standard to that used in United States v. Deleveaux, which allows for justification as an affirmative defense to the federal laws prohibiting felony possession of a firearm when extraordinary circumstances exist.

The Deleveaux standard, which is followed by federal and some state courts, has four prongs: 1) the defendant was under an unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury; 2) the defendant did not negligently or recklessly place himself in such a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct; 3) the defendant had no reasonable alternative to violating the law; and 4) there was a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of harm.

During his appeal, Monroe stressed that without the adoption of such a test, a felon who used a firearm in his own home to fend off an attacker might still be prosecuted under the Act.  The State countered that North Carolina courts have never recognized the Deleveaux standard as an exception to the Act in the past and, therefore, should not do so in Monroe’s case.  The State pointed to multiple cases in which the North Carolina Court of Appeals has addressed the Deleveaux justification test.  In those cases, the court did not consider whether the justification test should generally apply in this state, but rather considered the test relative to the facts presented.  Examining the issue, the court in Craig, Napier, McNeil, and Boston held that there was not enough evidence to warrant the adoption of a justification defense.

Additionally, the State focused much of its argument on the legislative history of the Act, asserting that the issue is appropriate for legislative, rather than judicial, judgment, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Rutherford.  The State argued that while the right to bear arms is established by the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, that right is properly subject to regulation by the state’s police power.

The State further noted that the Act is a strict liability statute, meaning that it does not require a mens rea element.  In order to incur liability under the Act, a person need not intend to possess or use a firearm.  Rather, the act of possession and status as a felon is sufficient.

Since the Court of Appeals was divided as to the issue of a justification defense in Monroe, the case was appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court as of right.  The Supreme Court, on the other hand, unanimously affirmed the trial court’s decision not to include the jury instruction.

Although now fully adjudicated, this case proposes the question of whether there should be a self-defense exception to the Act, or whether the strict approach should remain.  Interestingly, both approaches seem to violate different aspects of public policy.  On one hand, the Deleveaux test that would offer an affirmative defense under certain limited circumstances goes against the state’s general policy of disallowing felons to possess firearms.  However, preventing a person, regardless of criminal history, to protect himself and his family from attack also violates public policy, particularly in a pro-Second Amendment state like North Carolina.

Regardless, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Monroe, it appears that there will be no exception to the North Carolina Felony Firearms Act, unless the General Assembly amends the law.

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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