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RIGHT TO KILL?

What's troublesome about gun nuts in this country isn't so much that they want to play with firearms and wear them on their hips with almost no restrictions. It's that many feel they have the God-given right to end every conflict with a bullet, or three.

There's often implied cowardice that goes along with all the righteous handgun-totin'. Way too often, sidearms are worn by craven men with chips on their shoulders, itching for a fight they don't have to resolve with their fists.

Take the case of Harold Fish, the ex-Tolleson high school teacher convicted of second-degree murder by a Coconino County jury and sentenced to 10 years in the 2004 death of Grant Kuenzli.

Kuenzli, 43, was a former fire inspector living, along with three dogs, out of his car in the Coconino National Forest when he encountered Fish. Fish, then 59, was completing a daylong hike when he came across Kuenzli and his dogs.

Two of the three canines ran at Fish with teeth bared. Fish dropped his walking stick and went for his 10-millimeter Kimber semiautomatic handgun, firing a warning shot into the ground in front of the dogs, dispersing them.

Then, Kuenzli ran at Fish, but he didn't get a warning shot. Instead, he got three hollow-point bullets in the chest. Supposedly, Kuenzli threatened Fish, yelling that he wanted to kill him, screaming profanities and swinging at Fish, "with his eyes crossed, looking crazy and enraged," as court documents recount it.

Later, it was discovered that Kuenzli had a screwdriver in his pocket, and a temper, according to some. Others remember him as a kind, caring man who volunteered with the local Humane Society. But Fish didn't know that at the time. He just knew that Kuenzli was advancing on him, and he obviously perceived the man as threatening.

Problem is, if that's all it takes to kill someone in Arizona, that's a pretty low threshold. Even if the guy is threatening. Sheesh, whatever happened to fistfights? Fish had a walking stick; did he think of using that? What about the gun? Couldn't he have popped Kuenzli upside the head with it? Or better yet, just moved out of the way of the oncoming, would-be assailant?

Nah, Fish just plugged the guy. If Kuenzli had been coming at Fish with a knife or that screwdriver, Fish would have been in his rights. Still, Fish contends he had no other choice. When Dateline NBC's John Larson asked Fish why he didn't hit Kuenzli instead of killing him, Fish's answer was revealing.

"You know, I just didn't think it would work," Fish told Larson. "To be honest with you, it didn't really even occur to me."

Of course it didn't occur to Fish — because he had a gun. And the gun was Fish's first and last line of defense, as it is with most firearm lovers. They see no problem with blowing someone away in an altercation that need not escalate to that level.

It explains why Fish's case is a cause celebre among gun advocates. The National Rifle Association kicked in an unspecified amount to Fish's legal fund. Blogs such as the "Pro-Arms Podcast" noted that Fish was defending himself from "an irate attacker" and kvetched, "You can be doing everything correctly" and still wind up in court.

"Imagine how this could happen to any of us," the blog stated.

Similarly, the "Harold Fish Defense" Web site cheered Fish when his verdict was reversed on June 30 by the Arizona Court of Appeals, and it criticized Attorney General Terry Goddard's office for appealing that decision to the Arizona Supreme Court.

"What possible purpose does that serve?" asked the blog's host, who is not directly affiliated with Fish, BTW. "Let's keep this in mind in future elections."

Yes, Fish is a free man after serving three years of his sentence. And Coconino County Attorney David Rozema has announced there will be no new trial because the Legislature passed a law this year making a 2006 self-defense statute retroactive to Fish's case. That statute places the burden on the prosecution to disprove a defendant's self-defense claim.

But if the AG's Office has its way, Fish will go back to prison where he belongs. Assistant Attorney General Joe Mazairz explained that the appeals court overturned the conviction because Fish's attorney wanted the jury instructed on the definitions of other crimes, including endangerment, threatening or intimidating, and aggravated assault.

"Our position is, those are simply irrelevant," Mazairz says. "Because the only issue in this case was whether the defendant's use of deadly physical force was justified. And it would only be justified by the victim's threat of deadly physical force."

There are other issues involved, such as the relevance of a victim's past. See, during the trial, Fish's defense attempted to put Kuenzli on trial, but the ploy was ultimately unsuccessful.