Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author John Caile that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 15, Issue 8, November/December 2018 under the title, “House Rules: Defense at Home Is More Than Just Having a Gun”
We all want to protect ourselves and our loved ones, especially when we are in our own homes. I’ve always disliked the term “home defense” because, in reality, it’s not the structure we are defending but rather the people inside. By making the right choices, we can protect ourselves legally and avoid ending up in prison or being bankrupted in a lawsuit.
You’ve probably heard someone express the rather simplistic notion that “if a guy’s in your house, you can shoot him, no question.” As with just about any legal quandary, it depends. True, juries have a bit more sympathy for someone who is attacked in his or her own home than they do if an individual uses deadly force in public, but don’t think that the fundamental rules of self-defense suddenly evaporate. A number of high-profile cases over the last couple of years have resulted in homeowners who claimed self-defense being convicted of aggravated assault, manslaughter or first-degree murder. And even when no criminal charges were filed, civil lawsuits have cost people their life savings, some even losing the very homes they tried to protect.
By the way, people often erroneously call anyone who breaks into a house a “burglar.” But a burglar is a thief. A professional burglar will often case neighborhoods for homes that are unoccupied during the day, which is when most burglaries occur. A burglar only wants your stuff. What he or she does not want is a confrontation, particularly with an angry homeowner who might be armed. The only time you are likely to confront a burglar is by accident — when he or she thought the home was unoccupied.
This is exactly what happened to a student of mine who stayed home from work one day to do some chores around the house. Afterward, when he got out of the shower, he heard a noise. As he stepped out of his bedroom wearing only a bath towel, he came face to face with two very shocked young men, who immediately scrambled out the back door, dropping all the stuff they’d been carrying. Lucky for everyone.
Home invaders, on the other hand, are truly the stuff of nightmares. Unlike burglars, these are individuals who break into a dwelling expecting, even hoping, to find you home. Think rapists, violent sadists and even the “thrill killers” portrayed on those true-crime TV shows. These perpetrators are likely armed — if not with guns, then with knives, bats or other weapons of opportunity.
A word of warning though: Before you pull the trigger, you’d better be sure. Not everyone who ends up in your home, even in the middle of the night, is necessarily a genuine threat. People have unintentionally shot drunken neighbors, kids playing pranks, spouses and, worst of all, their own children. Just last year in Central Florida, a man unintentionally shot his 17-year-old son who was coming home late at night and was trying not to wake his parents. The aftermath of such an incident is simply unimaginable, often resulting in divorce and, in some cases, even suicide. This is why the USCCA so strongly recommends having a good tactical flashlight on or at least near your home-defense gun.
Even with warnings like these, I still occasionally hear someone try to dismiss such concerns, saying something like, “Hey, if they’re in my house, that’s their problem, not mine.” Oh, really? I can’t help imagining such people trying to convince a typical jury why they had the right to shoot and kill an unarmed 13-year-old.
Bearing all of this in mind, let’s run down a few of the most important realities concerning home defense and how to do everything you can to avoid ever having to shoot.
Assess Your Home Situation
Survey the physical aspects of where you live and its vulnerabilities, and then use what you learn to establish your daily safety protocols.
Apartments and condos present the issue of access. Does your building have limited (meaning key-card or locked) entryways, or can just anyone walk in and wander down the hallways at any hour of the day? What about parking? If outside, is the lot fenced? Well-lit? If you have garage or underground parking, how easy would it be for someone to gain entry? One case I recall involved a rapist who waited in some bushes for his victim to use her key card to raise the underground garage door and then ducked in behind her car before the door closed. The same has occurred in single-family homes with automatic garage door openers. Always check before entering.
With townhouses or single-family homes, motion-activated lighting is helpful and relatively inexpensive. And with modern smartphone technology, you can now even get relatively sophisticated door locks with built-in cameras for less than you might think.
Speaking of which, door and window locks are obviously mandatory, but they only work if you remember to use them. Most police officers have more than a few stories of victims who simply “forgot” to lock their doors and windows.
A sliding glass door is a weak point. You need to ensure that someone on the outside cannot lift the door out of its tracks, and you need to immobilize the door if someone who can pick the lock attempts to gain entry. A wood or metal dowel or rod is a good idea, and there are also many inexpensive devices that will do the trick.
Alarm systems, whether national name-brand services or do-it-yourself systems available at very modest cost, are almost mandatory. Whether you opt for live monitoring is up to you.
Dogs are proven deterrents. But even if you don’t (or can’t) have a dog, there are inexpensive and clever ways to make it look like you do. A big water dish by the back door or one of those “I Love My Pit Bull” (or Rottweiler, German Shepherd or whatever) stickers in a window can go a long way toward causing a criminal to have second thoughts.
Unfortunately, none of the above measures will do you any good if you fail to use basic common sense. When I lived in Illinois years ago, a serial rapist assaulted dozens of women in a very quiet suburban neighborhood. He always operated between late morning and early afternoon, after having cased the homes where women were home alone. Dressed in workout clothes and running shoes — a common sight in the neighborhood — he’d just knock on a victim’s front door. He later testified that 80 percent of the time, women would just open their doors, at which point he forced his way in.
His heinous career finally ended when a woman answered the door with a gun held behind her back. When he tried to force his way in, she jumped back, got the drop on him and called police. Sadly, after his highly publicized arrest, it was learned that a number of his previous victims had also possessed firearms but did not have them handy when they carelessly opened their doors.
Thanks to movies and television, when people imagine a home invasion, they usually imagine someone dressed in black, wearing a ski mask and holding a tire iron or crowbar. But the time of day, the number of assailants, whether or not the assailants are armed, and where you happen to be at the time are impossible to predict; just ask the “shower guy” from a few paragraphs up.
This should go without saying, but it unfortunately cannot: One thing you should never do is set up what amounts to a trap or an ambush as some incredibly foolish people have done. In one such case in Minnesota, the homeowner was convicted of first-degree, premeditated murder. Remember, no matter what your state’s laws say about using deadly force to protect property, jurors need to see you as a responsible citizen who took all reasonable precautions and only used deadly force to protect human life. As a savvy lawyer friend once commented, “Juries simply don’t like people killed over stuff.” Similarly, I generally recommend handguns for home defense. They are easier to handle in close quarters, and, more importantly, research has shown that military-style rifles can negatively affect outcomes. When an AR or AK is held up to a jury, some, unfortunately, lose all objectivity. As always, quality legal representation and a rock-solid legal backup plan are essentials to the responsibly armed lifestyle.
OK, so even though you did everything right and took every precaution, let’s say you end up having to shoot an intruder. If this is the case, it is absolutely essential that you follow the same procedure that you would for any defensive shooting outside of your home. Call 911, say only your name, that you want to report a home invasion and that you need a police car and an ambulance, and then give your address. Then hang up and immediately call your attorney. Tell him or her it’s an emergency and that you need him or her right away.
Finally, when the police arrive, remember that your residence is now a crime scene.
To arriving police, say only, “Officers, he tried to kill me. I don’t wish to say anything more until my attorney is present.” Then, no matter how “right” you think you are, shut your mouth. Police will try to get you to talk; don’t. Wait for your lawyer.
What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but at least you will be able to present to a jury all of the reasonable and prudent measures you undertook to protect yourself before you had no choice but to use deadly force.
Discover how you can join nearly 300,000 responsibly armed Americans who already rely on the USCCA to protect their families, futures and freedoms: USCCA.com/gunsamerica.