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Posted on June 28, 2023 by in Case Analysis, Shawn Vincent

Dean Cummings: Tough Talk for Armed Defenders

“I knew it would have been the end of me if he got ahold of that gun.” That’s what Dean Cummings told a jury about his fatal confrontation with Guillermo Arriola on a remote desert property on February 29, 2020. Cummings was armed with a rifle — a Sig Sauer .556. Arriola was unarmed save for a canister of Mace, a deliberately less-lethal weapon. When a verbal argument erupted, Arriola attacked Cummings, resulting in a frantic struggle for the rifle.

Firearms and self-defense instructor Steve Moses says that if someone has the intent to do you harm, and they are able to incapacitate you with OC or pepper spray, it could potentially constitute an immediate threat of great bodily injury or death. Generally speaking, however, the threat of pepper spray does not necessarily justify the use of deadly force. Don West, criminal defense lawyer and National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe, says using a rifle against Mace represents a disparity of force that would seriously complicate a self-defense claim, and perhaps scuttle it altogether. During closing arguments, the prosecutor at Cummings’ trial told jurors “Mace is not great bodily harm.” 

The problem for the prosecutors in the Cummings case is that the defense didn’t argue that the defender feared great bodily harm from the Mace. As Cummings’ testimony suggests, the defense argued that the immediate threat of death came from the possibility that the attacker would be able to wrestle the rifle away from Cummings and use it against him. Don West says that in a physical struggle, it is possible for the defender’s gun to become “the gun,” and it creates a strange situation where the defender’s firearm — when it is at risk of falling into the attacker’s hands — becomes the very threat that potentially justifies the defender’s use of deadly force. 

In the Cummings case, Don says, “It was the fight for the rifle that resulted in the use of deadly force. But for Arriola trying to get ahold of the rifle, the other circumstances probably wouldn’t have justified the use of deadly force.”

Cummings didn’t intentionally introduce the rifle into the conflict — it was already there. Cummings was a guest on Arriola’s property. Arriola invited him to park his camper and spend some time there while considering if he wanted to purchase the land. Arriola even opened his home to Cummings, giving him access when he was away. It was on such an occasion that Cummings used Arriola’s kitchen table to work on the scope of his rifle with the intention of hunting barbary sheep in the surrounding hills. 

When Cummings finished his work, he inserted a full magazine and leaned the rifle against the wall in the kitchen. Not expecting Arriola to come home for some time, Cummings left the rifle and went back to his camper – a mistake in judgment, Cummings later admitted. When Arriola came home earlier than expected, Cummings realized his mistake and went to retrieve his rifle.

But rather than grab his gun and leave, Cummings engaged in a conversation with the host. The conversation quickly turned to talk of problems that were delaying the sale. Cummings said, “I started calling him out, saying, “Are you trying to scam me?” Cummings admitted on the stand that he may have gone too far by calling Arriola a “scammer.” Enraged at the insult, according to Cummings’ testimony, Arriola pushed him to the ground and repeatedly tried to spray him with Mace. As Cummings struggled to “crab walk” away, he came within arms’ reach of his rife. He grabbed it, and a life-or-death struggle for the weapon ensued.

Like it or not, armed defenders have a moral obligation to try to avoid conflict — even verbal altercations — when they are armed or within proximity of their firearms. Steve Moses says, “If you have an issue with someone, going to them and calling them a ‘scammer’ is never a good idea.” We all have the right to speak our minds, Steve notes, but he suggests that doesn’t absolve us from the consequences. “We don’t control how others will think, or feel, or react.” 

We’ve explored a number of cases where armed defenders initiated a verbal confrontation only to find themselves the target of a physical attack. In a movie theater in Wesley Chapel, Florida, Curtis Reeves complained about another patron’s cell phone use during previews. When Reeves told the man he had reported the cell phone use to the theater manager, the patron had a violent reaction, which prompted Reeves to draw his concealed pistol and shoot an unarmed man. In another case, Michael Dunn asked a group of teenagers to turn down the loud music they were playing in a gas station parking lot. He couldn’t have predicted that one of the teens would start shouting and making violent threats, prompting Dunn to pull his pistol from the glove compartment and fire at unarmed seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis. In a different parking lot, Michael Drejka took it upon himself to chastise Brittany Jacobs for parking in a handicapped spot. Drejka didn’t know that her boyfriend Markis McGlockton would come out of the store and shove him violently to the ground, prompting him to draw his pistol and shoot the unarmed attacker.

As armed defenders, Reeves, Dunn, and Drejka should have realized that any verbal confrontation with a stranger could provoke a violent reaction and create a scenario where they may have to decide if the use of deadly force is justified against an unarmed attacker. These defenders certainly had the right to engage with these strangers, but had they fully recognized the power and responsibility they have as concealed carriers, they might have more carefully considered whether initiating a verbal conflict over relatively petty infractions was worth the risk.

Cummings wasn’t carrying a concealed weapon when he confronted Arriola – the loaded rifle was already there, leaning against the kitchen wall in plain sight. Cummings knew it was there when he entered the home, which makes his decision to call Arriola a “scammer” all the more irresponsible. Of course, Cummings had an absolute right to confront Arriola about the property sale, but he did it without tact, and he did it in the presence of a rifle with a full magazine. It was a recipe for disaster.

As an armed defender, it is dangerous to leave unsecured weapons laying around — especially when there is a possibility they may end up in the wrong hands. Also, you should recognize that any verbal confrontation has the potential of turning violent, and as an armed defender, any violent confrontation you are in has the potential to spin out of control and result in the use of deadly force. As Don West points out, it’s particularly difficult for armed defenders to justify the use of deadly force against unarmed defenders. Handle your firearms responsibly. Avoid unnecessary confrontation. There is no reason to talk tough, especially when you are armed.