You’ve lived in your quiet house on your quiet country road for nearly 15 years. It used to be that you never had to lock your door, lock your car or make sure your lawnmower was secured in the garage at the end of a long day of mowing more than an acre. But recently, as the sprawl has quickly spread your way, you’ve been hearing reports from neighbors that life is not as bucolic as it once was.
Things are going missing. Thieves have been targeting bicycles, lawnmowers and tools. Mailboxes have been vandalized and, in at least one case that you know of, a house has been burglarized. You’ve taken it upon yourself to install a streetlight at the end of your long driveway and motion sensor lights around your detached garage. The lights and long driveway — combined with your relative distance from the main road — have you feeling as though no one would bother driving out from the city and taking two lefts and a right onto country roads in order to find your house, set well back on your large, wooded lot.
As Long As Criminals Have Cars…
But apparently distance is no deterrent for criminal activity. About 1 a.m. Sunday, as you rest peacefully after you’ve spent a great day tending your little piece of heaven, you hear a low growl from the normally cheerful dog that sleeps at the foot of your bed. Your canine companion is pacing around the room and, through your window, you see that the motion-sensing lights near your garage are on. Deer have triggered the lights before, but never before has your dog growled and paced in such a manner.
You decide to go investigate.
Armed in the Dark
Grabbing your .38-caliber revolver, you head down the hall through the living room and kitchen before exiting out the back door in an effort to see anyone before he or she sees you. As you round the corner of your house, you see the shadowy outline of what looks like an SUV parked several yards down your driveway. The vehicle is sitting in the darkened area of the drive between your streetlight and the light cast by your motion-activated lighting at the garage.
As you consider approaching the vehicle, you see three figures cross into the lighted area and begin trying the doors of your car, which is parked in front of your garage. One of the trespassers tries the access door to your garage and, finding that locked, returns to the car where the two others appear to be having a discussion.
You decide you’ve seen enough and step out of the shadows, walking briskly forward and asking in a loud voice, “What are you doing here?”
Instead of putting the trespassers to flight, your voice seems to give them a new target, and all three begin walking toward you. This is not the reaction you anticipated, and your mind begins to race. You are right now about 50 feet apart, and you realize that the lighting you installed is not really illuminating the driveway as well as you would like. The angle of the lighting is wrong, and the lights are shining in your eyes. As the trespassers approach, the one in the front shouts, “Old man, you about to get f***** up!”
You still can’t see any faces, but with the backlighting, you see the outline of something long and slender in his right hand.
He shouts again … something about how you need to back off. You don’t really hear the words but wonder why someone on your land would be telling you to back off. All you can see is the outline of the object in his hand.
You raise your gun and shout, “Stop!”
All three keep walking.
You fire several shots at the person with the object in his hand. He falls, and you move almost instinctively to the corner of your house, seeking a better vantage point. When you look back, all three are gone, and the SUV is speeding down your driveway toward the road.
You immediately go inside and call 911, explaining that you have just shot at three men in your driveway.
Things to Consider
- Could you articulate that you reasonably believed this to be an imminent deadly threat?
- By heading outside to investigate, did you escalate the situation?
- What are the state laws covering such actions?
- What will you do and say when the police arrive?
Based on the information provided here, this appears to be a situation where a reasonable person would consider the actions of the trespassers threatening. The fact that the homeowner is outnumbered and one of the actors appears to be carrying something that could be used as a weapon does allow for the argument that this situation was indeed deadly.
But depending on the laws of the state, confronting these trespassers might make the homeowner, in the eyes of the law, the aggressor. On the other hand, the statement by one of the trespassers made it clear that he was intent on causing physical harm to the homeowner.
Other factors that investigators and prosecutors might take into account is the amount of time between the verbal challenge and the shots being fired. Did the homeowner give the trespasser a chance to comply before firing the gun?
All of these elements and more will come into play as police investigate this shooting. Knowing the laws and following them will protect the homeowner from prosecution, but actions taken in the heat of the moment cannot be undone.
What Really Happened?
The basic elements of this story are true. This shooting happened in northern Illinois, and there is more to it. Much more.
Sheriff’s deputies arriving on the scene questioned the homeowner, and he could not tell them what his attackers looked like or how many times he fired. When they collected his revolver as evidence, investigators did not put that bit of information in the initial press release. That information will likely be used if the case ever comes to trial. But here is the rest of the story.
In the driveway, investigators found a 10-inch Bowie-style knife near the area where the homeowner said the trespasser was last standing. They also found what appeared to be blood.
About 20 minutes later, a group of teenagers in a white SUV pulled up behind a police vehicle from another jurisdiction. The officers in that vehicle were engaged in an unrelated traffic stop. The teens dropped off a 14-year-old boy who had suffered a gunshot wound to the head. They then sped off. The SUV turned out to have been stolen, and a chase reaching speeds of 120 mph ended only when the SUV ran out of gas. The teenage boys inside were all arrested after a short foot chase. The injured boy later died at a local hospital.
Authorities have, at the time of this writing, recommended no charges be filed against the homeowner. But we all know that could change. Civil litigation is still a real possibility, especially based on the age of the boy who was killed and the fact that a racial element to the story exists. The situation ended tragically for everyone involved.
Legal, Yes. Correct? Well…
This entire situation is one big can of worms. The outcome was not predetermined. Any number of subtle changes could have changed the lives of everyone involved. Certainly, the boy and his friends should not have stolen a car and then gone looking to steal another one. That is a given. But the homeowner had some choices in this situation as well.
While legal, were his actions required? Could he have ended the situation without gunfire? Remember, we always say that we are engaged in self-defense, not “stuff” defense. Was it wise to head outside to confront criminals who did not pose a threat to life? It is just stuff. Yes, it is your stuff, and it is infuriating to see someone stealing it and possibly getting away, but self-defense is not about anger and punishment. It is about stopping a deadly threat.
Even though response time for rural law enforcement is often way too long, the homeowner or a family member could and likely should have called 911 before venturing outside. Perhaps the dispatcher would have suggested staying inside. Who knows? But the sooner you can get help headed your way, the better.
Now let’s look at the actual shooting. Why did the homeowner break cover and confront the burglars in the open? What if one of them had a gun? Could he have shouted a challenge from a hidden position, perhaps confusing the trespassers by not revealing his location? By walking out into the open, he gave them something on which to fixate. The three now had someone to fight and chose to advance. As they advanced, the situation went from a relatively minor crime to a deadly force encounter. Yes, one of them was armed with a deadly weapon. You certainly don’t want them to get any closer, but could the verbal challenge have been better? “Stop” is pretty clear. But “Stop or I’ll shoot you” would have made things really clear and given the trespassers a chance to escape (or at least think about it).
Finally, no matter how tough you think you are, the thought of killing a 14-year-old boy will likely weigh on you heavily. This is especially true if you consider any of the other options that would have stopped this situation from escalating to gunfire.
This is a tough situation. Someone is tampering with your car. What can you do? Should you shoot?
About Kevin Michalowski
Kevin Michalowski is executive editor of Concealed Carry Magazine and a fully certified law enforcement officer working part time in rural Wisconsin. He is a USCCA- and NRA-Certified Trainer. Kevin has participated in training across the U.S. as both a student and an instructor in multiple disciplines. These specialties include pistol, rifle, shotgun, empty-hand defense and rapid response to the active shooter. Kevin is passionate about the concealed carry lifestyle, studying the legal, ethical and moral aspects of the use of force in self-defense. He is a graduate of the Force Science Institute Certification Course and has worked as a professional witness and consultant on matters concerning the judicious use of deadly force and deadly force decision-making.