Despite Risks, More Use Guns In Self Defense

By Frank J. Murray

Special Report
Washington Times

Gunpoint confrontations in which armed private citizens turn the tables on violent criminals occur with explosive swiftness hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times each day in the United States.

This guerrilla shooting war is almost invisible to the public, experts say, because combatants on both sides have qualms about publicity. Its biggest victories prevent serious crimes and don't seem newsworthy one at a time.

The loud public battles focus on how often citizens fight back, and how dangerous it is to defend themselves. Opponents at the extremes of the debate cite estimates that guns are used in self-defense from 180 times a day to once every 13 seconds, a breath-taking number even to the National Rifle Association, which culls a handful of such stories for its monthly magazine feature, "The Armed Citizen."

Whatever the total of potential victims who actually halt crimes with their own guns -- a surprising number of them young women with babes in arms -- they are a quickly growing lot and convinced that they're doing the right thing. Among them: A pair of elderly grandmothers in snowbound Moses Lake, Ore., who repelled an attack by four men at home; an Apache Junction, Ariz., church deacon who wounded an armed robber in his church; and a Bangor, Maine, man who shot a robber in his front hallway after being slashed with a knife.

They are people who believe it's better to have a gun and not need it than to need one and not have it. "I'd do it again in the same situation. I felt we were probably going to get raped and murdered and whatever. I've still got two shotguns," Marty A. Killinger, 64, said in an interview this week from the Oregon home she defended with fellow "pistol-packing grandma" Dorothy Cunningham, 78.

"If you're not willing to defend yourself or your family, you're just going to be a dead gun owner instead of somebody who is alive and safe," said Phoenix apartment manager Rory Vertigan, 27, whom the National Rifle Association invited to Saturday's Denver convention for standing up to three heavily armed men who murdered a police officer.

Bangor robber Michael Chasse was so surprised when his victim drew a gun that he pleaded self-defense at his trial. He was sentenced April 2 to 12 years in prison after a jury rejected that claim.

Chasse, 24, a homeless alcoholic with a criminal record, said he slashed bakery executive Robert Cohen -- brother of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen -- only after Mr. Cohen, inside his own house, drew a gun and shot him twice in the chest and held him until police arrived.

"I saw a man with a gun pointed at me," Chasse testified, saying the knife fell out of his pocket while he was trying to talk.

But Penobscot County prosecutor Mike Roberts told The Washington Times: "The defendant would have continued the attack if he had not been shot. Mr. Cohen hit him twice and he stayed down."

The self-defense claim evoked the oft-told tale that criminals routinely sue citizens who shoot them in the course of a crime.

"Extremely rare and almost never successful. Normally these lawsuits don't go far," said New York state Sen. Michael A.L. Balboni, who recalled a criminal suing unsuccessfully for $1 million after being shot by the owner of an inn he was burglarizing in Saratoga Springs.

No large numbers of such cases are known either to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, whose members would file them, or the American Insurance Association, which could expect to pay off for a homeowner.

"There may be coverage" from a homeowners' policy against such a suit if the insured "intended" only to scare the criminal and stop the crime, not specifically intend to shoot him, a spokesman for the insurance group said.

Mr. Balboni studied the topic for a Fordham Urban Law Journal article last year and was the prime sponsor of a bill passed two weeks ago to block felons from "adding the ultimate insult to injury" by going to state courts to profit from their crimes.

"There's something to be said about closing the loophole, if only to save people from being victimized twice by having to pay for a defense," Mr. Balboni said in an interview. However, police departments occasionally lose such lawsuits. In one such instance, the New York Transit Authority paid $4.3 million in 1993 to subway mugger Bernard McCummings for a gunshot wound that paralyzed him nine years earlier while he was trying to escape from a robbery. The money was tied up for two more years, however, until state courts in 1995 rejected an attempt to share that with the injured crime victim, Jerome Sandusky, 83.

Most reported self-defense cases are from 31 states that allow some degree of carrying a concealed weapon. Home invaders, store robbers, and carjackers top the list of those who face gunfire and sometimes death. That was the fate of would-be carjackers who confronted an FBI agent in a 1998 Maryland case and another who chose a Stanton Road SE car occupied by three women, all off-duty D.C. police officers who returned a volley of gunfire.

Some incidents are flatly unlawful because the private citizen illegally possesses a gun. But even in the District of Columbia, which has the toughest gun laws in America, authorities may tolerate self-defense with an illegal firearm.

When robber Roger W. Green put a gun to the head of the wife of store owner In Doi Choi at his Minnesota Avenue SE convenience store on July 25, 1997, Mr. Choi killed the bandit with a shot in the back. The merchant was not prosecuted, either for the shooting or for illegal gun possession. Last week, when officers arrested a Capitol Hill resident who had 23 loaded guns in his house, Capt. Elliot Gibson noted the situation from a burglar's perspective: "You definitely would not have wanted to break into that house. You would have been in big trouble."

The fate of being charged with illegal gun possession was not escaped by Carl Rowan when the pro-gun-control columnist used a .22 pistol to shoot a midnight intruder, who turned out to be a teenage skinny-dipper using his backyard pool. Mr. Rowan's sensational 1988 trial ended in a hung jury and he was not retried.

In his autobiography, Mr. Rowan said he still favors gun control but admits being vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy. But anecdotal incidents are difficult to translate into meaningful nationwide statistics.

"There isn't any source of information that contradicts the notion that people who use guns for self-protection come out of the event better off," said Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, whose studies consistently produce the highest estimates of self-defense with guns -- and the most controversy.

"Kleck really drives most people up the wall," said Patrick A. Langan, senior statistician for the Justice Department's massive National Crime Victimization Study (CVS), which tracks annual gun trends. He considers the data reliable but doesn't break out gun statistics in published tables because they are incidental findings.

Reliable numbers are a sore point for gun prohibitionists and advocates alike because the self-defense value of guns is crucial in the political struggle over curbing the number and readiness of legally owned weapons.

"I think it would have a large bearing on deciding the issue. It's one of the key factors that keeps gun control from being enacted," said Desmond Riley of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which he described as "the most radical gun-control group" for seeking to halt all handgun sales and manufacture. "You've got to have enough benefit to cancel out the cost of arming criminals because there's so many guns out there," conceded Mr. Kleck. He said he converted from being a gun-control advocate who began his studies with the belief that more guns meant more homicides.

The late criminologist Marvin E. Wolfgang, who opposed "ugly, nasty" guns so fervently he advocated taking them from the police, wrote four years ago that he regretted finding Mr. Kleck's study scientifically admirable, cautious and sound. Mr. Langan said much the same, but in more cautious terms as he explained why the Justice Department isn't more active on the topic.

"We usually just put out the facts and let others decide whether on balance it's better to resist. These are really complex questions," Mr. Langan said of his own reports that defending against rape, robbery or assault helps 65 percent of the time and makes things worse about 9 percent of the time. Critics say it is dangerously foolhardy to pull a gun against a criminal. But unpublished Justice Department figures show the risk is less than the alternatives.

Crime victims who use guns to repel an attack are injured 17 percent of the time, less than half as often as crime victims who defend themselves with a knife.

"About one-fourth of those who don't resist at all are injured, which means nothing is a guarantee of safety in these situations," said Mr. Kleck, who challenges the motives of anyone who questions or supports his work.

"Even the NRA uses it as a propaganda ploy. They happen to be facts, but they are politically useful facts so they are used politically," Mr. Kleck said in an interview.

"I don't think the [gun opponents] of the world have any interest in finding the true number. They all concede it's big, and they're afraid of how big it's going to be because it's against their prohibitionist agenda," he said.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence endorses interpretations of the federal study that support the low-end estimate of 65,000 defensive gun uses a year, but agrees that's still a lot. Nationwide it would mean gun owners use weapons to defend against violent crime more than seven times each hour.

"We understand people are scared of crime and violence, but buying a gun is not the way to go. The safety that you feel is an illusion," Mr. Riley said, contending a gun owner is three times more likely to use the weapon against a relative than against a criminal and five times more likely to kill himself with it.

Nine researchers are in the ballpark with Mr. Kleck, reporting more than a million self-defense incidents a year. In 1981 Mr. Kleck found an annual rate of 800,000 incidents, boosted that to 1.2 million by 1990 and doubled it in 1993 to the current 2.5 million.

"The general pattern was that the better the surveys got, the higher the numbers got," Mr. Kleck said, describing a nationally representative survey of 4,977 adults that was specific to guns.

Breaking down his numbers to an average 6,850 self-defense incidents every hour of every day gives pause to Kleck supporters, even at the NRA, which often trumpets his findings but said it would take a broad definition of defense to have more than four episodes each minute.

"Defensive gun use in this country is a reality, and all estimates of that number are significant, but numbers high or low don't affect the principle that there is a fundamental right of self-defense," NRA spokesman Jim Manown said. Tim Lambert of the University of New South Wales in Brisbane, Australia, frequently challenges Mr. Kleck's numbers.

"There is overwhelming evidence to prove him wrong, but unlike an urban legend we know the source of the claim," Mr. Lambert said in an e-mail exchange with The Times, saying he tracks the subject because gun control is a hot squabble in Australia as well.

"When a gun is used for defense it is reasonably effective," Mr. Lambert said, adding that he believes the Justice Department study supports an estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 defensive uses a year.

"It's a frustrating murky, murky world," Mr. Riley said. "They've got a hunk of paper that says this, we've got a hunk of paper that says that. After a while you don't know who to believe." Mr. Kleck said the count is not critical to the conclusion. "Frankly, if the number were half of what I said it was it's still huge. And it matters very much politically because there's a downside risk to all those guns being out there. The biggest cost of prohibition gun control is that people wouldn't have them to save their lives and protect property."

This information is from The Washington Times

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