Unforced Errors: Don’t Send the Wrong Message

No Trespassing.

WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM: bumper stickers, welcome mats, signs and placards, each proclaiming some political or social value or point of view. Sometimes, they mean little or nothing to us. Sometimes, we get a little miffed. Sometimes, we nod in agreement. And, sometimes, we think — or blurt out — “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Harmless, right? Not if you are an armed citizen. In fact, it can be extremely harmful to you and a threat to your freedom.

Before anyone leaps on me for “trying to quash their 1st Amendment Rights,” let me say that it is not a matter of your rights but rather an area in which you need to make carefully reasoned and prudent decisions. While that bumper sticker slogan might reflect a deeply held belief of self-reliance and acceptance of personal responsibility for your own security, it is a poor choice of forum for a complex subject. Rather than pushing a clever sound bite, the wiser course of action is to be like the strong, silent, self-reliant type we all admire.

What, Me Worry?

I’ve had people tell me that their bumper stickers or signs in their windows are a ridiculous thing to be concerned about. Not so. If you ever have to use deadly force to protect yourself or a loved one, your world will likely get turned upside down. Unless you’re very lucky, every aspect of your life will be examined with a microscope by a prosecutor looking for wrongdoing, an attorney looking for a lawsuit or a reporter looking for a front-page story. Anti-gunners will look for any way to vilify you. Why load that metaphorical gun they’ve already trained on you?

Remember the general standards that justify the use of deadly force: You didn’t start it, you didn’t escalate it, you couldn’t safely retreat from it or you were in your home. You faced a threat of imminent death or great bodily harm. You had no recourse to save your life other than the immediate use of deadly force.

“Trespassers Will Be Shot. Survivors Will Be Shot Again.”

Now, how reasonable, responsible and compliant with those standards do you appear with a welcome mat that reads, “I Don’t Dial 911”? Or the ever-popular, “Be Found Here at Night and Be Found Here in the Morning”? The evening newspaper’s banner headline will declare “Shooter Claimed He Was Ready to Shoot Anyone on Sight,” while the prosecutor quietly prepares your welcome mat as People’s Exhibit 1 to establish your bloodthirsty character and the premeditation of your act. The tongue-in-cheek humor will be lost on them, believe me.

Let’s say you hear noises in your detached garage and investigate. You think it is the neighbor’s dog again, but instead, you are attacked by a stranger and use deadly force to save your life, firing multiple rounds and critically wounding the individual. Most states’ rules of deadly force are similar to Michigan’s: “You must have a reasonable and honest belief that you face a threat of imminent death or grievous bodily harm.”

Now, explain to investigators the large sign on your wall that reads, “Trespassers Will Be Shot. Survivors Will Be Shot Again.” No matter how legitimate your act of self-defense was, you, my friend, have a serious problem and a serious threat to your freedom, and it’s a problem that you created. To the outside observer, the powerful first impression is one of a delusional gun freak who just committed first-degree murder. You just couldn’t wait to gun someone down, could you? And you proclaimed your intent and premeditation to the world.

He Had Car Trouble

As responsible people, we try to avoid trouble and dangerous situations. But who knows what kind of dangerous kook you will encounter on the road? After you use your legally carried handgun to stop a charging lunatic on the side of the road, explain your “Keep Honking, I’m Reloading” bumper sticker to responding officers. They won’t be amused, and your story will be automatically suspect.

Never doubt that people read and pay attention to what your bumper stickers say. A few years ago, presiding in court as county magistrate, I had a driver who challenged his ticket, claiming that he was targeted by police and just being picked on. He said his car was to blame, that it attracted attention. I adjourned the case to the parking lot.

Police didn’t dislike his car, but his bumper sticker that read, “Bad Cop, No Donut” was clearly attracting their attention.

His car — a glistening, candy-apple red, high-performance sports car — was not his problem, but I suspected he was correct that police, while writing legitimate tickets, were not cutting him any slack. Police didn’t dislike his car, but his bumper sticker that read, “Bad Cop, No Donut” was clearly attracting their attention. A traffic ticket costs a couple hundred bucks. An “Armed and Dangerous” or “Forget the Dog, Beware of Owner” bumper sticker can result in a felony charge that could cost you your freedom.

You will be held responsible for what’s on your car even if you did not put it there. In one case, the prosecutor argued that the bumper sticker on the defendant’s car demonstrated his violent character and calculated decision to use any excuse to pull a gun on someone. When it was pointed out that the car was purchased used and the prior owner, not the defendant, put the bumper sticker on the car, the prosecution was not phased one bit. “No one but someone who agreed with that idea would leave that bumper sticker on a used car they bought,” was the response.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Most of us understand that, as responsibly armed Americans, we study, know and take seriously the obligations and limitations to the use of deadly force and the rare instances in which it can justifiably be used. As such, we accept a level of social responsibility and behavior that those who are not armed do not have. What we do and what we say projects an image and sends a message, though that image and message will likely be mostly ignored until we find ourselves in a deadly force encounter. Then they will be examined in excruciating detail. It’s better to leave the comedy to the late-night crowd and those with far less to lose.

Situational awareness is a critical part of a personal and family protection plan. It lets you identify and avoid problems before they arise. The best way to survive a deadly encounter — or its aftermath — is to never experience it in the first place. Rather than a clever phrase that attracts attention and negative reactions, it is a wiser choice to project an image of quiet confidence and alert awareness. It’s better to take a look at the messages you are sending and, if need be, clean them up now than to desperately attempt to explain them later to an unsympathetic officer, prosecutor, judge or jury.