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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vestal: Killed car thief never got his chance at justice

Does self-defense extend to your SUV?

And if it does, let me pose another question: Is it just car theft that good guys with guns can punish? Or could I, say, shoot to death someone I caught stealing my bike? Or my newspaper?

The slope, it is slippery.

The fatal shooting of a car thief by a Spokane homeowner is a sad tale for all involved – including, I would argue, the man whose case was closed extrajudicially – and there is a lot we don’t know. But it extends the boundaries of our debate about gun ownership and self-defense, because the homeowner shot the car thief as he was driving away. Which means that it’s possible, if not probable, that no self was really being defended.

Still, the case has already taken on the contours of our competing-realities gun debate, in which the gun lobby consistently inflates what it calls “Defensive Gun Uses,” or DGUs. The NRA cites statistics alleging that there are 2 million DGUs in America each year. Harvard researchers say these are overstated by a factor of 20, vastly inflated based on self-reports from self-identified self-defenders.

Already, many are clamoring to describe Monday’s shooting as defensive. Here’s a relatively mild example of the celebratory language that greeted this news in The S-R’s online comment section, with spelling and grammar intact: “Good for the man who defended his home and property by elminating a car theif. So sorry for the poor guy who’s garage and property were damaged.”

To those who think this way, there are few problems that aren’t best solved with a dude shooting a bad guy. The sooner the better. This attitude – that you must be ready at all times to decide who to shoot, and that doing so is a relatively clear-cut moral proposition – is perhaps most bizarrely characterized by an article at a self-defense website that poses the question: “When Should You Shoot a Cop?”

When indeed? More than 6,600 people have liked it on Facebook.

There are good reasons not to make heroes of vigilantes. Unappealable verdicts of death, especially when delivered in the heat of the moment to someone who is fleeing, are not how we punish crime in this country. There’s more to the Constitution than the Second Amendment. There are some things in there about the rights of the accused – even when the accused has been accused a whole lot, as in this case – and jury trials and such nonsense. If you love the Constitution, shouldn’t you love that stuff, too?

Self-defense is the great gun argument, and there is absolutely no question that a lot of gun owners use the weapons to protect themselves against criminals. We’ve had local cases that illustrate this perfectly, and it is inarguable: Law-abiding gun owners sometimes defend themselves and others from criminals.

But how often? The aforementioned DGU statistics are an example of our self-selecting tendencies, when it comes to the numbers: The NRA cites the 1995 research of Gary Kleck, a Florida State University criminologist, who argues that crime statistics underreport the frequency of firearms used in self-defense, and too frequently define a victim engaged in self-defense as simply an equal party in an escalation of violence. Based on self-reporting, the survey concludes that there are as many as 2 million DGUs a year, including many vague scenarios such as simply brandishing a gun.

A Harvard public health researcher, David Hemenway, has criticized these estimates as vastly overstated, noting the unreliability of self-reporting.

In a piece written late last year, BusinessWeek summarized the back-and-forth in this way: “Hemenway believes Kleck includes too many ‘false positives’: respondents who claim they’ve chased off burglars or rapists with guns but probably are boasting or, worse, categorizing unlawful aggressive conduct as legitimate DGU. Hemenway finds more reliable an annual federal government research project, called the National Crime Victimization Survey, which yields estimates in the neighborhood of 100,000 defensive gun uses per year. Making various reasonable-sounding adjustments, other social scientists have suggested that perhaps a figure somewhere between 250,000 and 370,000 might be  more accurate.”

You don’t have to listen to much gun fervor to recognize the characteristics that might drive DGU inflation. One of the most recent examples came after the shooting at the Clackamas Town Center in Portland; a man claimed, in the most self-aggrandizing terms possible, that his aiming of a pistol from behind a pillar prompted a gunman to shop shooting and kill himself. No one believed this except those who pre-believed it, and they believed the heck out of it.

In political debates about limiting the access to assault rifles or huge magazines, gun proponents often paint horrific hypotheticals about the mass home invasions against which homeowners must be prepared, cases where gangs of bad guys burst in, like something out of a Steven Seagal movie, and a homeowner simply must have 30 or 100 rounds at their disposal to stave them off.

But the reality about crime is much more car theft than armed home invasion. And the question of self-defense is much, much trickier in the former scenario. The law seems to require that we not shoot people unless they’re threatening our life or someone else’s.

Ultimately, of course, cops and prosecutors and maybe even a jury will have to decide: Was the killing of the fleeing car thief a DGU? Or was it just another GU?

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.