A Week’s Worth of Self-Defense

It’s been a big week for self-defense, especially of the juvenile variety. The most famous case is that of Sarah McKinley, the 18-year-old widow in rural Oklahoma who was home alone with her infant son when two men tried to break into her house. One of the men had been stalking her and apparently had killed her two dogs. McKinley was remarkably calm, and had the presence of mind to ask the 911 dispatcher for legal advice:

DISPATCHER: What’s going on?

SARAH MCKINLEY: There’s a guy at my door. I’ve got some dogs that keep coming up missing. This guy’s up to no good. My husband just passed away. I’m here by myself with my infant baby. Can I please get a dispatch out here immediately?

DISPATCHER: Hang with me a second. Are your doors locked?

SARAH MCKINLEY: Yes, I’ve got two guns in my hands. Is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?

DISPATCHER: Well, you have to do whatever you can do to protect yourself. I can’t tell you that you can do that, but you do what you have to do to protect your baby. Is he trying to get in the door?

SARAH MCKINLEY: He just keeps knocking.

DISPATCHER: Okay. Alright. Do you have like an alarm on your car that you can set off with your remote control that might scare him and get him away?

SARAH MCKINLEY: No, I don’t.

DISPATCHER: Alright, that’s okay.

When one of the men broke in, armed with a 12-inch hunting knife, McKinley killed him with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Local authorities indicated that a policeman was en route to McKinley’s rural home within seven minutes after her call came in, which reminds us once again of the adage that when seconds count, the police are only minutes away. McKinley won’t be charged, but the dead burglar’s accomplice–who may or may not have entered the house–is being charged with murder. That may seem surprising, but it is the traditional felony murder rule: if you are committing a felony, and anyone dies in the course of it, including your accomplice, you are guilty of murder. It’s just one more inducement to avoid felonious behavior. In the end, the accomplice will no doubt plead to some much lesser charge.

Just two days earlier, there had been another case of juvenile self-defense, this time in North Carolina. A 14-year-old boy and his 17-year-old sister were home alone in rural Henderson when a gang of four men began to break into their home. This the house:

This is the gang:

While his sister hid in a closet, the 14-year-old grabbed the family shotgun. Moments later he called 911; he, too, was astonishingly calm:

In the call, the teen, says: ‘I just shot the man. He came around the corner. I shot him. He broke the whole glass out (of the back door).’

He continues: ‘I don’t know how many it was (who broke in). Just one came around the corner. I got one more in the chamber. I’m going to shoot again,’ the boy said.

‘Do not, while I’m on the phone, do not fire that firearm, OK?’ the dispatcher says. ‘What if another one comes in the house, ma’am?’ he asked.

I love that “ma’am.”

‘Let me know, OK, if you see anybody. I will let you know (when a deputy gets to the house),’ the dispatcher responded.

As the boy and his sister waited for deputies to arrive, he told the dispatcher that he was ‘perfectly fine’, but his sister was ‘really shaken up’.

The other three intruders fled; two have been caught. That’s the thing about a shotgun: there is almost always another barrel. No one waits around for the second blast. Valuable as handguns may be, when it comes to self-defense, there is much to be said for a shotgun.

We’re still not done: this one didn’t happen this week, but it was just in the news. A 14-year-old boy in Naples, Florida was being bullied by an older boy. The victim got off a bus and tried to escape, but the bigger boy chased him:

In a nine-page written judgment Judge Brodie concluded that Saavedra was being bullied and had attempted to avoid a fight with the older boy who also attended Palmetto Ridge High in Naples. He said the 14-year-old had got off the school bus a few stops before the location where he was expected to fight Nuno.

Witnesses said Saavedra tried to run away, but ended up fighting with Nuno and used his knife in the brawl that was witnessed by other students.

Nuno died after being stabbed 12 times in the chest and abdomen. One of the blows pierced the teenager’s heart. In her decision, signed December 30, 2011, the judge said Saavedra had ‘no duty to retreat’ and was ‘legally entitled to meet force with force, even deadly force’.

She stated: ‘The defendant was in a place where he had a right to be and was not acting unlawfully. ‘He had more than enough reason to believe he was in danger of death or great bodily harm … (He) was under attack from the first punch to the back of his head until he stabbed Dylan Nuno.’

These cases remind us of a significant feature of American culture, which is reflected in our law. Americans believe deeply in the right of self-defense. Not only that, a remarkable number of us are more adept at self-defense than one might expect. There are many countries where the heroes of stories like these would be likely to find themselves in jail, facing murder charges. It is, I think, another instance of American exceptionalism.

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