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Posted on May 18, 2023 by in Shawn Vincent

Dean Cummings: The Rifle Defense Paradox

Dean Cummings didn’t intend to use a long gun as a self-defense weapon, but when Guillermo Arriola attacked him, Cummings’ Sig Sauer .556 rifle happened to be at hand, and he fired a total of 11 rounds to end the attack. Three bullets struck Arriola. They proved fatal. A grand jury indicted Cummings for second-degree murder in March of 2020, and the defender faced trial two and a half years later in November of 2023. He was acquitted.

Cummings had been a guest on Arriola’s remote New Mexico property. He was considering purchasing the land, and Arriola invited Cummings to park his RV and stay on the property for $300 a month while deciding whether it was the right fit. Arriola even allowed Cummings access to his home.

Earlier on the day of the shooting, February 29, 2020, Cummings took advantage of that hospitality and, while Arriola was away, Cummings used his host’s kitchen table to mount his rifle scope in anticipation of hunting the barbary sheep known to populate the surrounding hills. When Cummings finished working on the rifle, he inserted a full magazine and left the long gun leaning against the wall near the kitchen in Arriola’s home. He hadn’t expected Arriola to return home any time soon. He was wrong. The host returned with groceries a short time later while Cummings was in his camper.  Feeling uncomfortable about leaving his rifle unattended, he went to retrieve it. 

Cummings encountered Arriola in the kitchen, and as the men talked, the conversation turned to the property sale — which had become contentious. According to his testimony, Cummings accused Arriola of being a “scammer,” and Arriola became enraged and attacked him, trying to strike him with what the defender referred to as a “canister,” which was later identified as a can of Mace. Cummings said Arriola knocked him to the ground, forcing him to “crab walk” on his back to get away while using his left hand to block Arriola’s blows. When Cummings “crab walked” near his rifle, he reached for the weapon and struggled to his feet.

“I grabbed the rifle and said ‘stop,’” Cummings testified, “but he came right towards me and knocked me into the bedroom.” Once in the bedroom, the attack persisted. “He was all over the gun,” Cummings said. “I knew it would have been the end of me if he got ahold of that gun.” That’s when the defender fired the fatal shots. At trial, Cummings said he was surprised that Arriola pressed the attack after he had armed himself with the rifle. “I’m thinking ‘if I point this at him, he’s going to stop and realize how serious it was,’ and he just kept barreling into me.” 

Cummings is not the first defender we’ve studied who was surprised to be physically attacked while holding a loaded rifle. We’ve explored the case of Gerald Strebendt who used a rifle in an attempt to ward off an angry motorist during the aftermath of a car wreck. The rifle failed to deter the enraged, unarmed motorist, and after the assailant grabbed the barrel of the gun, Strebendt fired a single, fatal shot. More famously, Kyle Rittenhouse was attacked four times while carrying a rifle during the second night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Despite being armed with menacing, high-capacity weapons, Rittenhouse, Strebendt, and Cummings were each assaulted by attackers threatening less-lethal force.  It’s the rifle defense paradox: sometimes the display of a long gun emboldens an attacker rather than deterring them. 

Firearms instructor Steve Moses suggests that the rifle defense paradox may result from a combination of “poor gun handling and the demeanor of the person who is the recipient of the attacker’s wrath.” Kyle Rittenhouse, a doe-eyed and arguably good-natured teenager, appeared unlikely to be willing to deploy the deadly force that his rifle entailed — a misconception that had grave consequences for his attackers. Gerald Strebendt, a veteran Marine sniper, unquestionably knew how to handle his rifle, but he clearly had no desire to actually fire at the stranger attacking him, as evidenced by the 9-1-1 call recording where he can be heard desperately urging the assailant to back away. And Dean Cummings offered convincing testimony that he hoped the presentation of his weapon would end the violent confrontation with Arriola. The attackers in all three cases likely detected the defenders’ reluctance to use deadly force, and they became emboldened by it.

Steve Moses says Cummings, “Probably looked fairly vulnerable when Arriola grabbed the rifle. If Arriola was indeed attacking him with the Mace, I think he was quite convinced that he could take control of the situation.” Steve says that if an attacker gets within about two arm’s length of an armed defender, “it’s much easier to gain control of a long gun than it would be for a handgun, which you can compress up to your body to control it.” The fact that it is easier for an attacker to wrestle control of a long gun than a handgun becomes an important consideration for an armed defender considering what kind of firearm to use for home defense. 

“A rifle or a shotgun is not a bad choice for home defense,” Steve says, “as long as the defender can stay in an ensconced position, such as a hard corner.” A hard corner is the corner of a room on the same wall as the door. It’s the last place an intruder can see if they enter the room, and it gives the defender a huge tactical advantage. “You have some distance,” Steve says, “and you’re communicating with the person outside the room that you are armed and you will shoot them, and if they come around, you have enough distance to accomplish that.” Taking a hard corner with a long gun minimizes the chance that an attacker will be able to try to take control of the weapon. 

Conversely, Steve warns that a home defender armed with a long gun faces some tactical disadvantages. Steve says, “If you have to go through the house in order to get to another room in which there is someone that you need to protect, you pretty much have to have both hands on that long gun to use it effectively, and in many instances, that means you have to open doors or go around corners where the rifle or shotgun is susceptible to being grasped.” Steve acknowledges that, in the right hands, a rifle can be very effective inside a home – he used a rifle when he served on a special law enforcement task force assigned to entering dwellings to serve high-risk warrants – but Steve has extensive training in close-quarters combat. A home defender without the proper combat training may want to reconsider using a long gun for home defense or at least understand the tactical realities of using a rifle or shotgun in close quarters.

The lesson for armed defenders is that, when a defender does not appear willing or able to effectively use a long gun, the rifle defense paradox tells us that the presence of the weapon can actually embolden an attacker, sparking a struggle for the firearm, and thus creating the deadly threat which the defender must then respond to. Moreover, it is easier for an attacker to gain control of a long gun than a handgun. Steve Moses says the solution to the rifle defense paradox is that armed defenders should not present a long gun in a self-defense scenario unless they have enough distance to avoid a struggle over the weapon, and they are committed to using it if the attacker gets too close. The trick here is that you cannot really conceal a long gun, so it comes into the mix as soon as an encounter begins. Steve stresses that every armed defender should have enough training to exude confidence and competence when wielding their self-defense weapon of choice — especially if that weapon is a long gun.