Earlier we pointed out that of the few hundred gun deaths each year that are classified as “justifiable homicides,” only a small fraction of these are actual self-defense cases in which a person in legitimate danger defended themselves with a gun. The vast majority of cases involve situations like…

  • Shooting at unarmed assailants or attempted robbers/shoplifters.

  • Cases where a gun owner over-reacted, responding with deadly force to an otherwise non-deadly incident.

  • Murky situations where it isn’t known who was the actual aggressor.

Here are some examples of actual cases which are counted as “justifiable homicides.” These are the type of stories gun advocates point to when making their deceptive claims of “self-defense”:

1. Shooting a young unarmed drunk man as he stumbled toward a man’s door at night and asked him for a light for his cigarette. (Solotaroff, 2013)

2. Russell Brightman shot and killed a teenager who was running away from his house. (ibid)

3. Twenty-eight-year-old Thomas Baker killed an unarmed teenager late one night. Baker claims to have been out for a post-midnight jog when, according to him, the deceased teen lunged at him in an apparent robbery attempt. When police arrived, Mr. Baker was found to have $950 in cash on him that he claims was his. (You always take wads of cash and handguns with you when you go out jogging in the middle of the night, don’t you?)

Since the only other witness to the incident was dead, conveniently shot and killed by Thomas Baker (who unloaded multiple rounds into his victim), we are forced to accept his story and believe that it was the dead man who committed an attempted robbery, as opposed to the other way around. This killing, which in all likelihood was some type of felony murder, instead gets counted among the cases of guns used in “self-defense.” (ibid)

4. There’s the 2007 case of 19-year-old William Wilkerson, who got in an argument with Jason Payne, 22, during an outdoor party in Wellington, Florida. According to state records, Payne was drunk and upset that Wilkerson was flirting with his girlfriend. A squabble ensued. Wilkerson put three bullets into Payne while shooting at him from his vehicle. The killing was found to be justified under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. (Cloud, 2012)

5. In Auburn Hills, Michigan, a 48-year-old woman with a concealed pistol license fired at a fleeing shoplifter, shooting at him multiple times in a parking lot. Police say she was not being threatened in any way at the time. (USA Today, Oct. 9, 2015, p. 4A) Forget the fact that this gun-toting lunatic felt it fair to kill someone over a possible misdemeanor; she’s just lucky her foolish decision didn’t end up with a bystander being struck by one of the many stray bullets she fired.

6. One day in Texas, Joe Horn could see that his neighbor’s home was being burglarized. So he called 911. During the call, Joe Horn tells the operator that he has a gun and wants to go confront the two young men. The 911 operator repeatedly tells him not to do this, to stay inside his home and that police are on their way. But trigger happy Joe Horn seems anxious to kill someone. So he ignores the woman’s advice, going out to confront the two men. They start running. Trigger happy Joe Horn shoots them both in the back. (After all, everyone knows that the true measure of a man is the ability to shoot people in the back, don’t they?) He got away with this cold-blooded killing only because the people he shot had just committed a felony, but it was anything but self-defense.

7. Another man started an argument with a black teen that was walking home from the store. The man followed the lad and then shot the 17-year-old when he fought back. The case was classified as legal self-defense. (See our information on the Trayvon Martin Case.)

8. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, 30-year-old Elton Richard chased a man a quarter of a mile from his property before shooting at him as he tried to climb a fence. He plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison. (USA Today, 2-125-2008) In many states, however, this would have been classified as self-defence.

The dubious and arbitrary nature of incidents classified as self-defense

The stories we’ve discussed here are representative of the reality of “self-defense” in America: Little true defense of life, just a whole lot of overreactions and unnecessary killings by gun owners that take life away as opposed to protect it. This is why experts state that official statistics overestimate gun self-defense cases by at least 10 times. (Galman, 2010)

These statistics also fail to consider the role that gun owners may have played in creating the situation in the first place. For example, a gun-toting minister in Detroit is accused of fatally shooting a man one Sunday in church “in self-defense.” It turns out he may have been having an affair with the victim’s wife, according to police. (USA Today, 10-21-2015, 4A)

In Florida, a man was harassing a woman in a car over a parking spot. The woman’s husband was in the store with their 5-year-old son. When he saw what was happening, he came to his wife’s defense, pushing the man away from the car and shoving him to the ground. The man who started this confrontation then pulled out a gun. As the other man was backing away, clearly not posing any type of threat, he shot this unarmed father in front of his kids, killing him.

This cold-blooded killer originally walked away free under Stand Your Ground claims. (ABC World News, 7-26-2018) Only after a video of the incident went viral did authorities change tact and secure a grand jury indictment for manslaughter. Yet we’ll have to see if it actually sticks, or if just like the Trayvon Martin case, this senseless murder is counted as self-defense.

Whether or not these killings are prosecuted or checked off as justified usually has more to do with how lax the gun laws are in a particular state or how sympathetic the investigator is toward the shooter than they do the actual facts of the case. Joe Horn got away with what was essentially murder for shooting two burglars in the back as they ran down the street, rendering the incident a “justifiable” double-homicide. Yet another man in New Mexico who essentially did the same thing got prison time. (Neither acted in true self-defense; both essentially committed murder and should have been prosecuted under normal murder statutes.)

In illustration of this principle, consider that since Florida passed its “stand your ground” law in 2005, the number of “justified homicides” in the state has skyrocketed. In 2005 there were 43 such cases. In 2009, the last complete year available at the time, there were 105. (Alcindor, Bello & Copeland, 2012) Florida didn’t suddenly become 3 times as dangerous as it was a few years ago, with 3-times as many people randomly attacking gun owners. What happened is that dubious “self-defense” claims which previously would have been considered clear-cut murder cases started counting as self-defense. Bar fights, road-rage incidents and anger killings could now be more easily classified as self-defense.

Legitimate cases of people defending their family from an actual, life-threatening risk do happen, but they are extremely rare. They are much like Unicorns – people can describe them but few professionals have actually ever seen one. Of the 300-500 cases of killings classified as justifiable, no more than a dozen or two are people actually defending themselves against someone who legitimately threatened them with significant bodily harm. Yet gun advocacy organizations try to count all these cases of citizens shooting fleeing burglars or unarmed opponents during bar fights as cases where a gun has saved the day. It’s wholly misleading, and outright dishonest.

Twisting the Narrative

The data on this subject is about as definitive as one can get: guns offer absolutely ZERO benefit when it comes to self-defense, and they increase the danger for those who possess them many times over. But that doesn’t stop the gun lobby from twisting the narrative to try and support their erroneous beliefs.

The 2019 attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, is a perfect example of how gun advocates twist facts to support their conclusions. A shooter walked in, randomly firing at parishioners. He killed one woman, 60-year-old Lori Kaye, and wounded several others, including an 8-year-old girl. A couple days later, on April 30, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial that did what Wall Street Journal editorials typically do: Drastically distort the facts toward a conservative bent.

The article tried to suggest that this incident was halted by a man with a gun, running the caption in large bold letters: “The best defense against a killer with a gun is a defender with a gun.” (Wall Street Journal, 9-30-2019) Except it wasn’t a man with a gun that actually stopped this carnage…it was an unarmed civilian.

Upon seeing the shooter, 51-year-old Oscar Stewart, an Army veteran, did what we’ve advised civilians to do in these situations: He charged at the shooter. “As he saw me, he dropped his weapon, turned and ran,” says Mr.. Stewart. “He may have been trying to change a magazine, or he just panicked.” After the shooter fled, another man, a former Border Patrol agent, ran after him and fired shots at his retreating vehicle after the man was already fleeing–none of which hit his intended target. Four of the shots at least did hit the car, a rather large target that doesn’t exactly speak to a high bar of accuracy. But one missed everything and sailed right on past to become one of those stay bullets that so often wind up striking innocent bystanders.

This is the deceit gun advocates engage in as they build their mythology about guns and self-defense: An unarmed civilian stopped the attack; the only contribution from the man with a gun was to shoot at an already fleeing attacker and missing his target with every single shot. Yet somehow, in some strange universe, this becomes an example of how a gun saved the day.