By 3:30 p.m., opposing protest crowds had largely dispersed from the Civic Center Park in Denver, shuffling to their cars after hours of waving signs and chanting slogans.
The competing events on Saturday, October 10th — one a “Patriot Muster” put on by right-wing conservatives, another a Black Lives Matter-antifa “soup drive” organized by the Denver Communists — had unfolded without drama that sunny afternoon, save for some shoving, posturing and yelling. But despite the lack of a crowd, two men, Lee Keltner and Jeremiah Elliott, found each other near the mouth of the Denver Art Museum, on the south side of the park.
They were a picture of opposites: 49-year-old Keltner, with rosy cheeks, a blond goatee, and a generous belly, compared to the much younger, Black and babyfaced Elliott. It’s unclear what started their altercation, but it didn’t take long before they came face-to-face with one another, arguing tersely from behind masks. In footage of their confrontation, we see Keltner take a step forward, bumping Elliott with his belly, which elicits a shove from Elliott.
“Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. You got the right to talk to me, don’t touch me,” growls Elliott, raising his fists in front of his “Black Guns Matter” T-shirt.
Keltner doesn’t back away, continuing to chatter while garnering bigger and bigger reactions from Elliott. “Fuck around and find out,” the latter yells. “I’m standing my ground.”
When Keltner reveals a can of Mace and places his finger on the trigger, Elliott remains in his face: “Mace me, then! Mace me!”
The commotion attracts a producer from local station 9News, and almost as quickly as the altercation with Elliott begins, Keltner turns his attention to the camera and rumbles over. “Get the cameras out of here, or I’m gonna fuck you up,” he says before running into the producer’s bodyguard.
The next moment unfolds in literal seconds, with a precision that makes it feel choreographed. Keltner slaps the guard, 30-year-old Matthew Dolloff, across the face, almost whipping the sunglasses off his temples. As Dolloff shuffles a step backward, he utters one sentence — “Don’t fuckin’ touch me” — while reaching for the pistol on his right hip. Keltner takes a step back, too, and lifts the Mace bottle in his right hand. We hear the hiss of aerosol interrupted by the thunder of a single gunshot reverberating off concrete.
With a heavy slap, Keltner’s body falls to the ground.
Keltner wasn’t known for his politics; in fact, if anything, it was his skill at handcrafting hats and a love of motorcycles that defined his outer life. He only took to protest in 2020, riled up by what he perceived as disrespect to law enforcement by Black Lives Matter activists and antifa supporters. On the day of the shooting, he wore a shirt that read “BLM: You’re fucking right Bikers lives matter.”
Dolloff also didn’t have a deep connection to activism, though screenshots from his purported Facebook page show a dislike of Donald Trump and support for Occupy Denver protests. He had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but was not licensed to work as a security guard in Denver, despite having successfully worked multiple events via a contracting agency. In this case, he was one of a number of security guards that 9News had hired in the prior months while covering protests.
“It’s important to recognize that this is somebody who is at the protest working to protect First Amendment rights. He was not there on behalf of any organization or to advance any political agenda,” Doug Richards, Dolloff’s attorney, told the Denver Post. “Even if he didn’t carry the special Denver security license … it doesn’t change the fact that Matt was acting in self-defense.”
Over the weekend, however, Dolloff received the charges for killing Keltner: second-degree murder, which could put him in prison for 48 years.
But no matter what happens in the trial, little can change the fact that a man died by a bullet for the transgression of a slap and some Mace. This is a story about a nation drowning in firearms, as well as the escalation of political violence between individuals amid a backdrop of rising nationalism and fascism. But it’s first and foremost a story about American self-defense, both as policy and a worldview. No other developed nation on Earth gives its citizenry as much liberty to use fatal force. And the legal right to deploy lethal violence against one another has only gotten stronger and more widespread in the last decade, despite national anxiety about the risks of mass gun violence.
But the death of Keltner isn’t a referendum on 2020. The narrative arc stretches back, winding through the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, through the atrocities of racist violence in the 20th century and to the founding of the union’s first 12 colonies. Our barely disguised lust for self-defense via any means necessary is ingrained in the DNA of American freedom — and codified by law.
On paper, the Colorado law on self-defense seems fairly clear: “A person is justified in using physical force upon another person in order to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by that other person, and he may use a degree of force which he reasonably believes to be necessary for that purpose.”
It’s similar to the laws in the books elsewhere in America, but despite the concise clarity of the words, the interpretation has long been muddy. The critical twist is that people defending themselves in Colorado almost never have a legal “duty to retreat” from an attack; instead, they’re given the right to stand their ground and use deadly force, even if they believe they can escape the situation safely. Half of America operates under Stand Your Ground policies like Colorado’s, with the policy spreading steadily thanks to growing support in the last 15 years, beginning with the passage of Florida’s landmark bill in 2005.
“Historically, some U.S. states said that a person had a ‘duty to retreat’ before using deadly force in self-defense. The ‘Castle Doctrine’ said that this duty did not apply when a person was attacked in his or her own home. And since 2005, 23 states have adopted ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws that formally extend the Castle Doctrine to public places,” writes Philip J. Cook, a professor and public policy expert at Duke University. “In effect, these laws confer police powers on private citizens, without requiring the kind of training and accountability that police have.”
We’ve seen this behavior unfold time and time again. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by two men who suspected he was a trespasser, confronted him and then claimed they had to shoot him dead because he fought back and they stood their ground. In July, Black Lives Matter supporter Garrett Foster — who was walking with an AK rifle strapped to his body — was shot and killed by a man who claimed self-defense (despite nearly hitting protesters with his car and behaving aggressively, according to witnesses). Two men were shot and killed in August when Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old with an AR rifle, crossed state lines, walked into a BLM protest, saw some property damage and decided to take matters into his own hands. Most recently, in an eerily similar series of events, a Portland man fatally shot a right-wing protester during an altercation in which the latter man held a can of Mace.
Supporters of staunch self-defense policies suggest that this kind of bloodshed is an unhappy consequence of creating a safer, more orderly America via the power of (armed) numbers. But the only clear outcome of this strategy so far hasn’t been a decrease in crime — it’s been the increase of homicides, as a groundbreaking 2016 report by RAND found. Since its publication, additional studies have reinforced that “Stand Your Ground” laws increase homicide risk, and there remains “no rigorous study” that shows that these laws promote legitimate acts of self-defense, RAND asserts. Additional data finds that acquittal on grounds of self-defense are extremely rare, with the FBI reporting that only 2.57 percent of homicides were found to be justified in 2010, for instance.
This suggests that few people are getting away with murder under the guise of self-defense. Still, that’s little relief when you consider the context of how the expansion of “Stand Your Ground” policy feeds into a cultural belief that personal agency must be maintained at all costs. The concept of self-defense has its roots in English common law, but since landing on the eastern shore of North America, it has morphed into something far more broad and powerful. It isn’t just merely the American colonial psyche, and westward expansion, that fueled a desire for liberty via death (of another). Indeed, Harvard history lecturer Caroline Light found that many of the laws that codify our right to kill under the guise of safety were born to protect certain groups of people over others.
“When we look back into the roots of self-defense laws in the U.S., we also see that they’re tethered to colonialism, legalized slavery and the legal doctrine of coverture, which meant that married women couldn’t own any property because their rights were literally ‘covered’ by their husbands,” she says in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “All of these different principles of exclusion were embedded in what would become the U.S. legal system. And as I traced them through time, even as laws started becoming more inclusive, self-defense laws were adjudicated chiefly to protect white men and their property.”
It’s this history that helps contextualize the phenomenon of white men by far owning the majority firearms in America, and the pressure that the deeply conservative National Rifle Association puts on legislators and the public to support “Stand Your Ground” laws. It helps explain why the gun’s connection to hunting and the outdoors has faded in the last century, instead blooming into a tool of paranoid city dwellers. It’s not enough for Americans to merely escape harm, Light argues; we seem to crave the ability to put down an aggressor for good.
“Lethal self-defense, in many ways, has become naturalized as a universal civil right,” she adds. “‘Do-It-Yourself Security Citizenship’ is the idea that an individual can and will be heroically prepared to fight in defense of himself and other innocent lives around him. It’s a seductive narrative for many people.”
That narrative doesn’t just lead people to buy a Glock and strap it on as they venture out to a counter-protest. It colors the decisions of jury members on self-defense trials, who may be raised with similar beliefs about fear and agency. It’s this craving that lets us ignore how haphazardly “Stand Your Ground” laws are interpreted in courts, with what William & Mary University law professor Cynthia Ward describes as “few, if any, conceptual boundaries” on what justifies lethal force. When the crux of American self-defense laws is whether or not you, as the victim, feel a “reasonable belief” that you’re in serious danger, the end result appears to be a lot of fearful people shooting first and taking questions later.
But in the public eye, this liberty is as valuable today as anything else, and Americans have shown steady support for “Stand Your Ground” laws through the last decade. Growing alongside the spread of the policy has been the number of guns purchased and concealed-carry permits authorized, which means an unprecedented number of Americans are walking around with pistols on their hips.
The trial of Dolloff is coming, but whatever the outcome, it won’t teach us anything we don’t already know. Every morning, this American fable begins anew, fed by fresh fear and nurtured by a series of self-defense laws that can only be viewed together as an ideology. If you fear that anyone can kill you, it becomes easier to assume you’ll have the green light to shoot first. And it’s not merely that so many are armed — it’s what leeway the law provides once the gunshots stop echoing. If you squint, it all looks a bit more like a right to violence than a right to defense.
The image that haunts me most after the Denver killing isn’t the one of Keltner dying on a warm Denver sidewalk. It’s the photo of Dolloff, the whites of his eyes as big as dinner plates, looking into the lens of a Denver Post camera, his shoulders still rolled forward in the posture of a trained shooter. His eyes don’t show power, agency or even the instinct to run. They show the shock of uncertain, but immediate, regret.