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Was this killing morally justified?

I’m asking this philosophically, not as a legal question.

Facts: Five high school pals broke into a vacant rental house at 1 a.m. to party. A neighbor called 911, and they fled when the cops came. When 2 of them climbed over the neighbor’s backyard fence, the neighbor’s husband, waiting with a handgun, without warning the teens, “turned on his porch light and fired five times as they ran away.” A 16-year-old was killed and an 18-year-old suffered a leg wound. The neighbor told investigators he felt threatened, was protecting his wife and children, and “didn’t want these men to come into my home.” He didn’t know if his shots hit anyone, and said they kept running. The 16-year-old was shot in the back, from a distance, i.e. the wound “did not exhibit evidence of close-range discharge of a firearm.” The D.A. declined to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence to convince a jury of guilt, and the law also “requires us to disprove that he was defending his own life and the lives of his family.” (Read news reports, if you’re interested, here, here, and here.)

Problem: While that accurately states the law, I’m throwing this out there as an issue of right and wrong, not whether it’s legally defensible.

Before I go into that, this case reminds me of a similar case in Seattle, many years ago, where a single man in his 40s came home in mid-afternoon to find 3 youths burglarizing his house. He killed a 16-year-old who was trying to escape over the backyard fence. This was before widespread adoption of the so-called “castle doctrine,” which essentially holds that your home is your castle and you can defend it regardless of whether you’re in danger, but by then Washington prosecutors had given up trying to prosecute homeowners who killed intruders because juries wouldn’t convict them.

Since then, America has become more armed, with deadlier weapons, is more politically polarized, and people are touchier, even though crime rates are falling. Which seems to make this a good time to talk about morality. Now let’s tackle the problem outlined above. I offer my impressions and thoughts below the questions.

What is a human life worth?

Not enough, based on recent news events.

Was this killing racially motivated?

I’d say no. The shooter is black, the victims are Hispanic.

Was this killing morally justified?

No way. The kid wasn’t armed or breaking into the shooter’s home, and the police were already there. In short, he wasn’t a threat. This kid had everything taken from him, and for what? Trespassing? Get off my lawn! bang! you’re dead! What kind of morality is that? What would Jesus say?

Was it justified on practical grounds?

No. The homeowner should have locked his doors, stayed inside, and let the police deal with the intruders. They were already there.

Was the homeowner really afraid?

I don’t believe that. He was a correctional officer, at home off-duty, at the time. This is someone who was used to being in the presence of dangerous criminals in his work, was trained to manage them, and is able to take care of himself.

Was it an ambush?

Sure looks like it. He went out on the porch, lay in wait for them, didn’t warn them, just opened fire. Never gave them a chance. Looks like he was fed up with neighborhood crime and just wanted to shoot somebody. In any case, he did so in a very questionable way, on a very thin excuse.

Did the homeowner intend to kill the kids, or just shoot at them?

Probably the latter. It’s difficult to hit a moving human-sized target from a distance. These weren’t aimed shots, he just shot at them. But he was trying to hit them; they weren’t warning shots. That makes him morally responsible for the death that resulted.

Would it be less morally reprehensible if no one had died?

Of course. Much less so. But that wouldn’t make it right. Shooting anyone, especially a teenager, for trespassing to “teach him a lesson” is extreme. Killing or injuring someone to prevent harm to yourself or others is justifiable, but always must be justified by necessity, which I don’t see as present in this case. I would also say one can defend property sometimes, but there are limits to this. Moral judgment involves balancing and proportionality, and above all, putting a higher value on life than property.

Should people keep guns for home defense?

Depends. It makes a lot of sense in isolated rural areas, but much less so in cities where police are nearby and can respond quickly. Urban dwellers are less likely to be hunters experienced in handling guns. Most people lack the temperament and training required to use guns for self-defense. A properly secured gun can’t be unlocked and loaded fast enough to be useful in an emergency. A dog is better protection. Far more people are killed by gun accidents than saved by “a good guy with a gun” (I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s rare). Too many people are trigger-happy. Some are likely to misjudge a situation, taking something as threatening when it’s not, or to shoot the wrong person, e.g., their own child. So much can go wrong with guns that I’m mostly against them, except in rural areas where the police are far away.

What about sporting and recreational uses of guns?

I have no problem with it. People are entitled to their sport or recreation, done legally, in a way that doesn’t harm or endanger others.

Should guns be regulated more?

Yes. I see no reason for civilians to have weapons designed for war. Even Trump agrees that bump stocks, which convert semi-auto rifles like AR-15s into machineguns, should be outlawed. Silencers and certain types of ammunition should also be illegal in civilian hands.

Should felon possession penalties be greater?

Yes. Current laws aren’t deterring criminals from possessing and using guns to commit crimes. Maybe no deterrence is strong enough, or would be effective. But locking them up keeps them off the streets.

What about a tyrannical government?

Ridiculous. This is fringe, not serious, thinking. Most people who shriek about “tyranny” are sovereign citizens, rightwing militias and extremists, and paranoid freaks. And people who think a public health regulation requiring them to wear masks in public around other people is “tyranny.” Next to criminals, these are the last people I want walking around armed in public. But suppose we fell under the jackboots of a tyrannical government with the military on its side — one that isn’t them (the most likely scenario). Citizens with AR-15s against tanks, jet fighters, napalm, and cluster bombs? Who are they kidding? The military would make short work of them.

What about gun control or confiscation?

Dire warnings about confiscating guns is partisan malarkey. It’s impractical and has no real political support. ain’t ever gonna happen. The fight is over things like magazine size limits, banning assault weapons, open carry, and so on. I support some controls, but not a whole lot more than closing the gun show loophole, opposing open carry, and banning bump stocks. I think it’s too late to ban assault weapons; too many are in circulation, plus they’re very popular. In any case, I see most gun control proposals as feel-good panaceas, not practical solutions. We should do what we can to keep guns out of the wrong hands and improve security at vulnerable facilities that are likely targets, such as courthouses, schools, and places of worship. But I think what we can do is limited. I don’t think America’s obsession with guns will last forever; it’s a temporary cultural phenomenon, and eventually will pass, but that will take a couple of generations. It will happen when today’s gun owners die off, and younger people lose interest in guns. Rural populations and hunting are declining, so this could happen in time. Meanwhile, I think having different rules for rural and urban areas makes a lot of sense.


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