Watching TV and movie westerns, you’ll often see the iconic image of a homesteader standing in the doorway of the log cabin or ranch house, trusty Winchester or double-barrel scattergun in hand, stalwartly scaring off a band of marauding Indians or a gang of unsavory “Bad Guys.” It is not, however, an image looked upon kindly by the justice system, nor by the juries who are empaneled to serve it.
Answering doors with gun in hand, or stepping out past the threshold wielding a firearm, has not gone well for a great many American householders. Let’s look at some recent history, beginning with a man who apparently was not protecting home and hearth.
Case One: Queens, New York. NYPD officers respond to a home after an alarming 911 call by a resident. They arrive to find Jack Calvello, 86, coming out the front door holding a shotgun. They draw their 9mm service pistols and shout at him to drop the weapon. He does not comply, and reasonably perceiving themselves to be in deadly danger, the officers open fire. Calvello falls dead next to his single-shot shotgun. Inside the house the police find Calvello’s 65-year-old daughter dying of a gunshot wound to the head.
What does this have to do with the column title, “Self-Defense & The Law?” Certainly, the officers were justified in using deadly force against a man facing them in an obviously menacing manner with a lethal weapon. But, more to the point at hand, what happened in the Calvello shooting is what police have to conclude is going on when they are confronted by any apparently hostile man holding a gun. It is something the homeowner must keep in mind when danger threatens and he reaches for his home-protection firearm.
In Case Two, in New Jersey, 24-year-old Sam McGraw was awakened at about 2 o’clock in the morning by noises outside his home. Looking out the window, he saw people with flashlights moving around near his truck. It seemed to him like burglars or home invaders who might be about to break in. Fearing for his safety, and that of his parents who were also in the house, he armed himself with his pump shotgun and went to the front door.
As he opened that door, he racked a round into the chamber of the shotgun. He would say later that he hoped the distinctive sound would alarm and frighten away any possible intruders. He succeeded in creating alarm and reasonable fear…but he created it among a coterie of police officers who, unknown to him, were searching the neighborhood for a dangerous felon. The officers perceived themselves to be under the gun of a man who wanted to shoot them, and very soon Mr. McGraw was under arrest on some pretty serious charges. After a long, agonizing year or so under a legal Sword of Damocles, Sam McGraw went through a five-day trial in March 2014, and at last a jury decided he had not acted with criminal intent and found him not guilty of all charges. Many commentators believed that he was lucky not to have been shot where he stood, given the circumstances.
One take-away from Case Two is, “When you think there are criminals on your property, call 911!” Had he done so, no one would have seen that his shotgun was readily at hand when he made contact with the dispatcher, and two things would likely have happened. (1) The dispatcher would almost certainly have told him to stay inside, because what was going on outside was a police manhunt for a dangerous criminal suspect. (2) The dispatcher would have alerted police that a homeowner at that address had called in and may have mistaken the officers for suspicious persons. Either (or both) of these things would have greatly reduced the likelihood of the unfortunate confrontation that did happen because that call was not made.
Don’t Just Stand There
The “stand in the entryway with your gun” scenario can go bad in any number of ways. Let’s look at two recent cases in Washington state. Case Three occurred in rural Lewis County. A man named Ronald Brady, who had experienced multiple burglaries, heard a car pull into the driveway. He approached the driveway through the garage, .22 rifle in hand. When he flung the garage door open he saw two people with flashlights and immediately opened fire with some 11 shots. One of his bullets struck a man in the chest, killing him.
Mr. Brady was charged with murder in the first degree. At trial, the jury convicted him of the lesser charge of manslaughter. While the couple he opened fire on apparently had some meth history and did have burglar tools in their vehicle, no felony had yet taken place and the jury apparently did not see any reason for Mr. Brady to perceive himself as under attack when he started shooting. Mr. Brady was sentenced to several years in prison.
On the opposite side of the state, in the Spokane area, a man who had been drinking heavily got into a loud argument with his paramour, which grew so vehement that concerned neighbors called the police. When they knocked on his door, the resident, angry and drunk, scooped up a Smith & Wesson .38 Special in one hand and suddenly ripped the door open with the other. He was about to become Case Four.
What happened next? Case One should have given a hint. The police, confronted suddenly by a man pointing a loaded revolver in their direction, did exactly what they had been trained to do. Amazingly, he survived the stream of .40 S&W bullets he absorbed before he dropped the gun, but he would forever after rue his decision to handle the matter as he did.
The Castle Analogy
Yes, your home is your castle. However, society seems to look askance when we lower the drawbridge and sally forth in the field conspicuously armed. It looks as if we’re marching off on a crusade, and for a great many people “crusader” is a synonym for “fanatic.” It puts people in fear. When you have a gun and put the wrong people in fear of you, there is a good chance that you will be arrested or shot—or perhaps, as Case Four
tragically illustrates, both.
Consider other options for portal security. You don’t have to be Bloomberg-rich anymore to afford a closed-circuit TV system that allows you to see who is outside. CCTV is a great deal cheaper than hospital bills, funeral expenses or legal fees.
I’m not saying you should go to the door unarmed and helpless when someone is pounding on it or ringing your doorbell at an ungodly hour. I’m saying, arm yourself discreetly. Remember that the person most likely to be at that door at that hour is a police officer, who will not take kindly to even a perceived weapon in your hand. Have the pistol holstered concealed, or at least behind your hip with your body angled so your gun isn’t visible from the other side of the door. A revolver in your waistband or a snub-nose .38 in your pocket, perhaps with your hand discreetly already on the latter, is vastly less likely to get you shot, yet still gives you a fallback if the person on the other side of that door turns out to be a home invader.
My definition of tactics has always been “common sense, applied with a solid knowledge of the factors involved.” One of those factors is that juries do not tend to look kindly upon people who go out of their house “looking for trouble.” Another is that people who have guns in their hands while confronting police are very likely to get shot.
These facts aren’t as glamorous as the pioneer in the doorway of the cabin with the Winchester, but they are the facts we all have to deal with in this society at this time, whether we like it or not.