Locked, loaded and legal

Jerome Ersland, before his life sentence for a shooting death
Mark Hancock

There are nearly 125,000 active concealed-weapons licenses in the state, 24,018 of which were approved last year. Gun legislation is ever-present.

The most prominent such bill from the current session would allow people with a concealed weapon license to carry their guns openly. It passed both the state House and Senate in various forms and likely will land on Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk.

At the same time, controversial shooting cases have grabbed headlines. In April a Del City police captain was charged with manslaughter after he shot and killed a teenager who had bailed out of a car involved in a March 14 chase. That came at the end of a media firestorm over the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, now considered a murder by prosecutors there.

And May 19 will mark the three-year anniversary of Oklahoma’s highest-profile case of a shooting that arguably straddled the line between self-defense and homicide. On that day in 2009, Jerome Ersland shot and killed 16-year-old Antwun Parker when he and an accomplice attempted to rob the south Oklahoma City pharmacy where Ersland worked.

The case sparked a national debate over whether Ersland was justified, but a jury agreed with District Attorney David Prater’s assessment that Ersland was guilty of first-degree murder. The pharmacist was sentenced to life in prison.

Laws have changed little since then, but the gray area that surrounds self-defense has created a niche for some local lawyers.

‘This lost feeling’

Standing at a makeshift microphone stand in his Midtown office April 11, Doug Friesen announced to a room of reporters that he was Ersland’s new appeals attorney and was busy assembling a team of lawyers to work pro bono on his case.

“When the ski masks came through the door, all rational thought stopped at that point and did not start again until much later,” said Friesen.

In an interview conducted a week before that news conference, Friesen said Ersland was the victim of talking too soon after the shooting.

The attorney said he believes Ersland’s mind, in a state of shock, rewrote the narrative of what happened, which led to conflicting accounts in interviews with news media and detectives.

“I think Ersland is the poster child ... for, if you talk a lot after a shooting, you can get yourself locked up in prison,” he said.

Psychological trauma is one of the biggest risks of owning a gun for self defense, Friesen said. Many of his clients aren’t facing legal challenges, but they still need help seeking counseling or dealing with media inquiries after being involved in a shooting.

“I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of people that, given the proper guidance and help, can work themselves back from this lost feeling,” he said.

Of course legal challenges are always a possibility, but legislation like Oklahoma’s “Make My Day” law, which specifically grants the right to use deadly force when in fear of “great bodily harm” or a “forcible felony,” has less effect than legal precedents already in practice, Friesen said.

“The core principle in the use of a gun always revolves around: Would an average person be just in thinking their life was at stake in that situation?” he said.

Mike Darter and Kyle Sweet were police officers, respectively, for 10 years and two years. Darter is now the CEO of a company he co-founded with Sweet that provides legal coverage for gun owners. CCW Safe is one of the first versions of a model that’s on the rise in Oklahoma.

Sweet, national counsel for CCW Safe, said people can buy annual memberships starting at $99 — and with that get free legal representation from the moment their gun gets them into trouble.

“You’re going to have lawyers provided for you, a team, an investigator, expert witnesses — all that’s provided for you,” Sweet said.

The company launched about seven months ago and has gained members all over the country, according to Sweet. Unlike an insurance company, the firm does not cover damages associated with a case and it doesn’t cap coverage. The program is funded by pooling membership fees.

Darter said they used police union benefits as a model. If an officer is involved in a shooting, he explained, legal representation is provided and the officer doesn’t have to pay for his or her defense. In addition, police are required to let a 48-hour period elapse between a shooting incident and the first round of questioning.

“You know, your mind is confused,” Darter said. “You’ve just been in a very critical situation.”

Bullets and bills

Darter knows from experience. As an officer, he was serving a drug warrant once when a suspect pulled a gun on him and his team. Darter fired. Although he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, he still faced a federal lawsuit from the family of the man he had shot.

His subsequent legal bill was probably more than $150,000 for everything from court reporters to lawyers, Sweet  said. Anyone without police benefits would have to shoulder that cost.

CCW Safe covers three types of legal actions that can result from firing a gun: criminal, civil and administrative. Sweet said if you were licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Oklahoma, but fired it in Colorado, you could potentially face criminal charges in Colorado, while being sued in the Sooner State. And the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which grants the licenses, might move to suspend or revoke your license.

Friesen recently launched a similar initiative. Andrew Speno, a former local TV news anchor who now does promotional work for lawyers, said he and Friesen got the idea for the Second Amendment Protection Plan shortly after the Ersland sentencing.

“If you fire your gun, the police will come,” Speno said. “There’s no question the police will come and they’re going to ask you questions.”

For $499 — the price of a cheap handgun — members get Friesen on retainer for five years, with the law office on call 24/7 and full legal representation for any criminal investigation up to the point of a trial.

Darter, Sweet and Friesen all emphasized the importance of gun safety education.

Firing a gun doesn’t end with a bullet, and it can end in litigation. Although most gun owners never fire, Sweet said there’s still a whole world of restrictions and prohibitions that concealed weapons license-holders need to constantly be aware of.

“The fact of the matter is it’s kind of a pain in the rear to have a concealed weapon,” he said.

Hey! Read This!

  • or