Here’s a short and simple story with a very powerful lesson in it; about a homeowner in Utah arrested and jailed on two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment.
He arrived home to surprise three burglars about to break into his house. It seems two of them raced away in their vehicle, and the third fled on foot.
Which is where the problem arose. The homeowner apparently fired one shot at the car as it drove away, and a second at the man running away. You might immediately think ‘Only one shot at each? Why not empty the magazine at them!’. By this standard, the homeowner was actually remarkably restrained. But not restrained enough.
It is easy to understand how this could happen to you, too. Your adrenalin is pumping, your sense of moral outrage is surging, and you’ve already pulled your pistol and used the sight of it (and possibly even had to discharge it) to cause the three burglars to abort their burglary and to run away. It is so easy to have images from the movies fill your brain and to find yourself all of a sudden shooting after the fleeing felons, perhaps with half-remembered thoughts about it being legal to shoot at fleeing felons (some states have laws that in some circumstances would seem to allow this).
There are two reasons you should never do so.
1. The Hazard of Shooting in an Urban/Suburban Area
Go stand outside your house or apartment, and look around you. Imagine that you are shooting at people fleeing the scene, either on foot or in a car. Now ask yourself this question : Where will your bullets go? Assume you either miss the bad guys, or you hit them but the bullets pass through and continue forwards (and possibly now deflected in an altered direction).
Oh yes – remember your bullets may penetrate several exterior and interior building walls too. And they will travel up to a mile before losing their lethality. So just because it seems that you can’t see any danger to where a bullet goes, the bullet doesn’t just harmlessly ‘disappear’ when it goes into the bushes that are obscuring your vision of things beyond. It keeps traveling, through the bushes, through the fence, and into whatever lies beyond.
Now allow for ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ask yourself – what are the chances that my rounds will grievously injure or kill an attorney’s child? Or anyone else’s child (or adult) for that matter, too?
Even if you don’t hit any people, how much property damage will you do? Hit a car and you’re quickly up for $1,000 or very much more. Some police departments average payouts well in excess of $10,000 per round fired by their officers. Oh – please also remember that none of this will be covered by insurance, and no matter if your shooting is justified or not, if you damage someone else’s property, you’re going to have to compensate them.
As you’ll see for yourself if you do this exercise (and you really should, because it is very sobering when you do so), in most residential neighborhoods there is close to nowhere that is safe to shoot.
2. Civil and Criminal Liability and No Insurance to Protect You
Shooting after fleeing attackers/felons/anyone is never a good idea and very difficult to justify, either legally or morally. There are special situations where it may be appropriate, but they are very rare and primarily revolve around where you know the fleeing person is going to cause great harm somewhere else immediately thereafter, and/or situations where the fleeing felon is shooting back at you as he runs away and you’ve nowhere to take cover.
You should only use deadly force where you or your loved ones are facing imminent danger of extreme harm. Using deadly force to protect property is a grey area – even if the law allows it in theory, you’ll probably find the laws talk about what ‘a reasonable man’ would do, and the concept of a reasonable man is a terribly vague concept that ends up building generous retirement funds for attorneys. The reasonable man and what he does is what the police, DA, jury and judge all decide it to be, modified as best possible in your favor by your own team of attorneys, expert witnesses, jury consultants, and so on.
Some parts of some states are clearly supportive of the use of deadly force to protect property, other parts of the same states may be equally clearly opposed to it, even though the same law applies in the different (or even same) counties or cities or whatever.
Look at it this way. If the burglars steal your electronics and jewelry, you can claim insurance. But if you shoot them as part of preventing the loss of your personal effects, that same insurance policy almost certainly won’t cover your costs of either criminal or civil defense.
The insurance companies say that being burgled is an event outside your control, an ‘accident’, but shooting someone in any circumstance is always a deliberate act on your part. They’ll cover you for accidental loss but not for the consequences of deliberate actions.
Your Bottom Line
So, to close with our subject line : Don’t get carried away in self-defense, because shooting at anyone when they are running away/driving away from you is almost never self-defense.
The Utah man who used his pistol wisely and well to prevent his house being burgled, and possibly himself being attacked, didn’t know when to stop. If he watched the three burglars flee the scene, he’d have been a hero, and could have gone inside his unharmed home and poured himself a celebratory drink.
But now he has been arrested, incarcerated, will have a lengthy trial process to go through, huge legal bills, and will probably be found guilty and end up with a criminal record. His two shots didn’t alter what happened to the three burglars one bit. But have massively changed his life, forever.
Learn from his mistake. Don’t let this happen to you.
Update : The citizen ended up in a plea bargain arrangement. He agreed to plead guilty, accept a $700 fine, forfeit his handgun, and take a weapons safety class. Details here.