In the last week in Gig Harbor, Puyallup and Bonney Lake, three separate burglary attempts were disrupted by armed homeowners. Since each resident emerged without injury, you would think that here, at least, are excellent examples of the proper use of firearms.
You would be right, and you would be wrong.
All three incidents were daytime burglaries, the most common time frame for such crimes. All three were precipitated by using a ploy -homes were targeted when residents failed to respond to knocks on the front door. From this point the details diverge.
In Gig Harbor two burglars fled when the resident appeared at the back door, brandishing a firearm. In Puyallup four burglars awoke the homeowner, a retired cop, who confronted them with his firearm. When one of the burglars allegedly advanced on him with a crowbar, he fired – one suspect later died at the hospital and another, who remains at large, was likely injured. In Bonney Lake the resident opened his front door while armed with a shotgun, surprising the burglar who was busy trying to kick it in. The resident cranked off a round at the burglar as he sped off in a truck.
Let’s tally that up. Three burglaries were foiled by armed residents. Two shootings occurred, with one suspect killed and one potentially injured. All residents emerged uninjured. Question: were each of these incidents legally justifiable examples of the “Castle Doctrine” (wherein residents are legally justified in attacking their intruders)?
That is the issue that prosecutors are considering, at least in regards to the Bonney Lake incident.
It is ironic that, of the two shootings described above, prosecutors are focusing on potential criminal actions of this resident. Unlike the fatal Puyallup shooting, it appears that no one was harmed in Bonney Lake. Some readers responded to this report with an undisguised cynicism, choosing to highlight the fact that the resident in Puyallup was a retired police officer. One reader commented, “it’s okay to shoot someone if your [sic] a cop but not if your [sic] a homeowner” (Trib (4/6).
Charging considerations in these cases have nothing to do with the current or former occupation of the shooter, but have everything to do with the value of human life. When their homes and lives were in jeopardy, these homeowners chose to defend themselves with a gun. While the threat remained, that choice was both legal and righteous. When the threat was gone, i.e. the burglar fled in a vehicle, self defense was no longer on the table.
This contentious issue is a common topic for debate at block watches, community meetings or anytime a citizen is curious enough to approach a police officer at the coffee shop and ask, “If somebody breaks into my house can I just shoot them?”
I have worked on that answer for many years. With the admission that this is not legal advice, here it is (again).
Consider a lethal threat in terms of two factors: possibilities and direction. Legal precedents allow people to consider every threat, whether they are readily observed or reasonably assumed . These include size, age and strength of an adversary, tactical advantages or disadvantages such as lighting or location and the presence of weapons (which include those in the possession of you, your adversary or simply nearby). Direction is a matter of trajectory – the threat is either moving towards you or away from you.
Using this oversimplified explanation, and keeping in mind that we only know what has been reported in the paper, let’s consider the two shooting incidents. The Puyallup victim was facing several alleged suspects, one of whom was advancing on him with a crowbar. Both the real and possibile threats were daunting. The threat trajectory was pointing directly at him. By contrast, the Bonney Lake resident allegedly fired his shotgun at a burglar not close enough to be a threat (since no firearm was mentioned), and the threat trajectory was speeding away from him in a truck.
The suggestion that potential charging decisions were, at least in this case, based on law enforcement ties is only an acknowledgment of bias or stupidity. Still, that’s beside the point.
Ultimately, the decision to use firearms to defend one’s home is a personal decision. If after reading about these homeowners’ traumatic experiences, you are wondering about your ability to act reasonably in a similar situation, then I recommend a healthy amount of training and education before bringing a gun into your home.