Decades of watching television and movies condition us to believe that real shooting incidents are like the “reel” ones on the screen. The sound of the last shot echoes away, the last piece of ejected spent brass rolls to a slow-motion stop, and the victorious hero rides triumphantly off into the sunset. Try to follow that part of the script and there’s a good bet you’ll find yourself riding off to prison instead.
On one internet gun forum, in a thread discussing what do to after a shooting, one poster innocently said, “Why do I have to call the cops? There’s no law that says a victim has to report a crime, is there?”
The cops and lawyers participating in that thread told the poster in no uncertain terms that in many jurisdictions, there is indeed an obligation to report a crime. Shooting people is against the law. The way the whole “justifiable homicide” thing works is, action in legitimate defense of oneself, or of others one has a right to protect, is an affirmative defense against the crime of shooting the assailant in the first place.
There’s something else going on, too—a legal concept called “flight equals guilt.” The assumption is that the person who did the right thing will stand their ground and explain themselves. If they flee, they may be presumed to have done so out of “consciousness of guilt.” It’s an element of human nature that goes all the way back to the Bible.
It’s not that the law derives from the Bible. Rather, both the law and the Bible show a remarkably good understanding of human behavior and social standards and expectations.
Let’s look at two similar cases. In each case, a legally armed man was attacked in public by a large, vicious dog. Each of those men was a card-carrying good guy, one an officer of the courts and the other a member of the justice system, though neither was a sworn law enforcement officer. Each had a permit to carry a gun in public. In each case, the armed man shot and killed the attacking animal. It was what each of them did next that led to starkly different outcomes.
In Case One, the person involved was a criminal defense attorney. He had just come home from work, and took the family dog for a walk—a shy dog, adopted from the Doberman Rescue League. This man was a few doors down from his home, holding the leash with his left hand and munching an apple with his right, when he heard a sudden commotion of growling and barking. He looked up to see a huge black dog lunging toward him and his dog.
The black dog turned out to be a Briard, an uncommon variation of the Bouvier de Flandres. The big, unleashed dog lunged at the lawyer’s animal and sank its fangs into her neck. The victim Doberman cried out in agony. The lawyer shouted at the larger animal, then threw his apple at it, and finally he kicked at the dog that was killing his pet. That got the big dog’s attention. It turned, fangs bared, and lunged at the lawyer’s crotch.
In a single trained, long-practiced movement, the attorney cleared his suit coat and drew his custom 1911 .45 ACP, and fired one shot from the hip in a speed-rock position. The animal instantly collapsed. The gun was still in the lawyer’s hand when he heard running feet and a man shouting, “I’m sorry, it’s my fault!” He turned to see a large man running toward him. Shoving his pistol back into its IWB holster, he jerked on his dog’s leash and hurried back to his own home. Once there, he unloaded the .45, set it down, and collapsed into a chair… and did not call the police.
Outside, the man who had apologized was in a quandary. He was the much younger boyfriend of a wealthy matron who owned the now-deceased dog, and loved it like a child. He knew that he had violated the leash laws, and allowed an animal he knew to be high-strung to attack someone else’s dog and get itself shot for it. He flagged down the first passing car and told the lady behind the wheel, “A crazy man with a Rambo gun shot my dog! We have to get him to the vet!” The helpful passerby allowed the man to put the bleeding dog in the trunk of her car, and drove off in search of a veterinarian’s office. En route, they passed a police car. “Beep the horn,” said the man with the dog. They flagged down the passing officer, and the man now changed his story to, “A crazy man shot my dog with a Rambo gun, and pointed the gun at me!”
Pointing guns at people without just cause is a serious felony called Aggravated Assault. The dog-walker pointed out the house he’d seen the attorney return to. Soon, peace officers were at his door, asking to talk to him. “Do you have a warrant? I’m not talking to you without a warrant,” he replied as he closed the door in their faces. The next day, they showed up at his law office with a warrant. Local television news channels were there outside, cameras rolling, to record him being walked to a patrol car in handcuffs. Soon, it was a major local news story.
We’ll get back to the outcome momentarily, but for now, let’s contrast that with Case Two, which occurred not far away from Case One in roughly the same time period. This time, the good guy was a licensed private investigator and process server. He drove to the house of a man known to him to be a dope dealer, to serve him with a legal document.
As he pulled up outside the subject’s home and stepped out of his car, the dealer emerged onto the porch. With him was a large Doberman Pinscher, complete with spiked collar, baring its fangs and barking as he strained on the end of his leash. The man yelled at the process server obscenely to get out or he’d set the dog on him. Shouting from the car, the investigator explained that he simply had piece of paper to hand him and was just doing his job. The other man unleashed the Doberman.
In this particular jurisdiction, it was legal for licensed gun carriers to have loaded long guns in their vehicles. The process server reached in through the open driver’s door and snatched up a short barrel shotgun. As the snarling Doberman came around the front of his car, lunging at him at full speed, a single blast of 00 buckshot stopped the animal in mid-stride.
Racking another shell into the chamber, and keeping his shotgun conspicuously muzzle-up so no one could say he had pointed it at the other man, the process server reached into his car for his cell phone and called the police. He told the dispatcher that the other man had set the dog on him, he had shot the dog, and that he was still holding the shotgun. He described himself and his vehicle as well as giving the location.
By the time the police arrived, the man had set down the shotgun, stepped away from it, and was holding nothing but his ID. He quickly briefed the responding officers on what had happened. “He shot my dog,” screamed the owner of the now-deceased Doberman. “I want him arrested!” But it was the owner who, as the handcuffs were slapped on his wrists, was told, “You’re under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon; an attack dog.” Before the dealer was frog-marched into the back of a patrol car, the process server slipped the paper into his cuffed hands and said, “Sir, this is for you.”
While the investigator was never charged or even arrested, the attorney in Case One, on the other hand, went through a long and grueling ordeal. Public embarrassment, to himself and his law firm. Charges of felony aggravated assault, cruelty to animals, and pretty much everything but violating the noise ordnance. Eventually, the prosecution figured out what had happened, and charges were dropped. There was then a lawsuit to deal with. The attorney prevailed in that as well. But there was a great deal of cost, both in dollars and in personal and family anguish.
Some time later, the attorney took my course for armed citizens. At the end, he told his story to the class and stated flatly that if he had just called the police as soon as he got back into his house, he was certain none of the rest of the painful aftermath would ever have taken place.
In Case Three, the shooter was the father of a battered wife, and when she fled the abusive husband, he and his wife of course took her into their own home. When the violent son-in-law came the first time to kidnap her, the father fought him hand-to-hand. The abuser attempted to gouge the older man’s eyes out with his thumbs, and the father fought him off only by literally biting one of his attacker’s fingers off.
Later, out of the hospital and out of jail, the son-in-law made his second kidnap attempt. He showed up at the older man’s place, his injured hand wrapped in a bulky bandage, and claimed to have a gun inside the bandage. With the man threatening to kill everyone and take his wife, the father whipped out a .38 and emptied it into his antagonist. Only then did he discover that the son-in-law was bluffing: There was no gun under the bandages.
Panicking, the father enlisted his son to help him hide the corpse on his ranch property, and he disposed of the .38 and fled. When the body was discovered, he was tracked down, and initially expressed surprise and complete ignorance of the whole thing. By the time he admitted what he had done, he had become “the little boy who cried wolf.” No one believed him. The jury convicted him of Murder. He received a life sentence, and the son who helped his father hide the facts wound up with a stiff dose of hard prison time, too.
If he had simply called in as soon as it was over, there is no doubt in my mind that the shooting would have been found justifiable. The verbal threats of a gun hidden in the bandaged hand, combined with the vicious son-in-law’s well-documented history of extreme violence toward him and his daughter, made the shooting itself “clear-cut justifiable.” Unfortunately, the man didn’t know that. Thus, he panicked and fled. “Flight equaled guilt,” and it literally cost him the rest of his life in prison. The “alteration of evidence” element had been one more large nail in the coffin of his freedom.
Anyone who tells you to leave the scene after a legitimate self-defense shooting, has just told you he doesn’t understand the justice system and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The simple fact is, the person who calls in is generally seen as the “Victim-Complainant.” The person who doesn’t call in is generally seen as the “Perpetrator.” Yes, it pretty much is that simple.