The Three Buckets of Self-Defense Scenarios
Violent Criminals, Tragic Misperceptions, and Knuckleheads
Don West is National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe, and he’s been a criminal defense attorney for nearly 40 years. As you may know, Don and I record a podcast together for CCW Safe where we talk about the legal ramifications of high-profile self-defense cases. Often, we’ll use legal terms like “reasonable fear” or “duty-to-retreat” or “curtilage.” In a recent podcast, I was delighted to hear Don use the decidedly non-legal term “buckets.”
“Self-defense cases,” Don says, “if you’re going to do general categories, fall into three buckets.” They are: Violent Criminals, Tragic Misperceptions, and Knuckleheads. When I look back at all the cases we have studied and dissected, I think he’s right. As a concealed carrier, if you find yourself encountering a potentially dangerous situation, it helps if you can identify which one of these buckets you are falling into.
Violent criminal cases arise, Don says, “if you’re confronted with someone who wants to rob you, or someone’s coming into your home with the intent of robbing you, or if someone intends a sexual assault.” There are other valid circumstances as well; we’ve seen these cases. Zach Peters awoke from a mid-day nap to the sound of breaking glass. He grabbed his father’s loaded AR-15 and went to investigate. He found three intruders, each clad in black, one with a knife, one with brass knuckles. He fired and retreated to his room to call 911. No charges were ever filed against the defender. Stephen Maddox is a CCW Safe member who encourages us to share his story. Stephen was violently attacked three times by a larger man at a motorcycle rally in North Carolina. It took multiple people to pull the attacker off Stephen the first two times, but during the attacker’s third attempt, Stephen was mostly on his own, and it took five shots from his .44 Special revolver to stop the assault. Although Stephen was charged with murder, it took a jury only two an a half hours to unanimously aquit him at trial. In both cases, these men encountered violent criminals who made their intentions clear, and the defenders responded with appropriate force.
Tragic misperceptions result, Don says, from simple misunderstandings. “That’s when the drunken frat boy is pounding on the front door, or the Uber driver drops a person off at the wrong place, and on the other side of the door is a homeowner who is confused and doesn’t know what’s going on.” We’ve seen these types of cases too many times. Ted Wafer awoke to violent pounding on his front door at four in the morning. Instead of calling 911, he grabbed his shotgun, and during a lull in the pounding, opened his front door to investigate. Surprised to see a dark figure standing here, he fired his weapon and discovered later that he killed 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who was drunk, high, suffering a head injury, and very likely confused and simply looking for help. Wafer is serving 17 years for second degree murder. Like Ted Wafer, Charles Dorsey also awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of someone trying to get through his front door. Dorsey was lucky enough to have his wife there who begged him not to open the door. After a 13-minute on again, off again exchange, the stranger became enraged and managed to break the latch and enter the home. Dorsey fired a single fatal shot. He’d learn the next day that the stranger was the guest of his next door neighbor, and he was drunk and disoriented and mistook Dorsey’s house for his friend’s. No charges were filed. Both of these men misinterpreted the intentions of the person they perceived as a threat. While both cases ended in tragedy, Wafer’s impetuousness cost him his freedom; Dorsey’s judgement saved him his.
The knucklehead group, Don explains, “may have temper issues. They may have substance abuse issues. And they come upon each other in a set of circumstances that . . . just goes sideways.” We’ve written about more than a couple of these cases. Michael Drejka had a problem with people parking in handicapped spots without a permit, and he started an argument with Brittnay Jacobs who had pulled into such a spot at a convenience store while her partner, Markis McGlockton, went inside. When McGlockton, who was under the influence of MDMA, came out of the store, he saw Drejka arguing with Jacobs and rushed up to him and pushed him violently to the ground. Afraid McGlockton would continue the attack, Drejka pulled his pistol and fired a single fatal shot. Drejka was found guilty of manslaughter. Ronald Gasser committed a minor traffic offence against Joe McKnight which erupted into what police called a “tit-for-tat” road rage chase that lasted several minutes and ended at a busy intersection just outside New Orleans. According to trial testimony, Gasser invited McKnight to the window of his car, perhaps to talk about the incident. When McKnight leaned into the window, Gasser said he felt threatened, and he pulled his pistol and fired three shots, one of which proved fatal. Gasser was tried and convicted.
In each of these cases, there was a moment when the defender felt he needed to draw his firearm. For Peters, it was when he heard the breaking glass in his home; for Maddox, it was when his attacker had dragged him to the ground for a third time. Both men had clear signs that they were the intended victims of violent criminals before they pulled the trigger. Ted Wafer and Charles Dorsey both grabbed their guns when they heard a stranger at their door in the middle of the night. Wafer made a mistake by opening the door and engaging the stranger before confirming the nature of the threat. Even Dorsey, who was obviously legally justified, missed several indications that the stranger at his door was confused and not a threat. As Don West says, home invaders usually don’t spend 13 minutes knocking before they break in. Drejka didn’t pull his pistol until he had been pushed to the ground, but we learned at trial that he had previously threatened to shoot a man over parking in that same handicapped spot months earlier. It can be argued, as it was at trial, that Drejka was menatally prepared to use his weapon when he started the confrontation with Jacobs. Finally, Gasser admitted that he pulled his pistol out of his gym bag shortly after the “tit-for-tat” road rage incident began. He signaled his willingness to use deadly force long before McKnight leaned into his driver’s side window.
The lesson for concealed carriers is that the moment you reach for your firearm -- or perhaps even the moment you contemplate the possibility of using your weapon -- you should stop and consider what self-defense bucket you are in. Are you unmistakably the imminent victim of a violent crime? If so there’s not much to think about. Are you in an unfolding circumstance that could be a crime, but could perhaps be a tragic misperception instead? If so, you probably have time to call 911 and position yourself in a more secure location so that, if the situation gets worse, you’ll be more certain about the nature of the threat and at a tactical advantage. Are you getting drawn into a confrontation with a knucklehead? If so, you’re wise to do everything you can to disengage and remove yourself from the situation.
SHAWN VINCENT- LITIGATION CONSULTANT
Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest of high-profile legal matters. If you have any questions for Shawn, or would like more articles like this, let us know belo