Despite Risks, Americans Use Guns in Self-Defense

By Murray, Frank J. | Insight on the News, June 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

Despite Risks, Americans Use Guns in Self-Defense


Murray, Frank J., Insight on the News


Citizens continue to arm themselves as protection against criminals, adopting a simple credo: It's better to have a gun and not need it than to need one and not have It.

Gunpoint confrontations in which armed private citizens turn the tables on violent criminals occur with explosive swiftness hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times each day in the United States. This guerrilla shooting war is almost invisible to the public, experts say, because combatants on both sides have qualms about publicity. While public debate focuses on the danger of citizens defending themselves, the media tend to ignore foiled crimes as unnewsworthy.

Opponents on the issue offer widely varying estimates, citing statistics showing that guns are used in self-defense 180 times a day to once every 13 seconds--a breathtaking number even to the National Rifle Association, or NRA, which culls a handful of such stories for its monthly magazine feature, "The Armed Citizen." Whatever the total of potential victims who actually halt crimes with their own guns-- a surprising number of them young women with babes in arms--they are growing in number. Among them:

* Two grandmothers in snowbound Moses Lake, Ore., who repelled an attack on their home by four men;

* A deacon in Apache Junction, Ariz., who wounded an armed robber in his church;

* A man in Brewer, Maine, who shot a robber in his front hallway after being slashed with a knife.

"I'd do it again in the same situation," says Marty A. Killinger, 64, of Oregon, who with fellow "pistol-packing grandma" Dorothy Cunningham, 78, defended themselves from an intruder. "I felt we were probably going to get raped and murdered."

In some ways, the incident involving the man in Maine is the most unusual. Not only did robber Michael Chasse, 24, a homeless alcoholic with a criminal record, end up pleading self-defense at his trial, but victim Robert Cohen, a bakery executive, turned out to be the brother of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. Chasse was sentenced April 2 to 12 years in prison after a jury rejected his claim that Cohen surprised him by drawing a gun and shooting him twice in the chest.

"I saw a man with a gun pointed at me," Chasse testified, claiming the knife fell out of his pocket while he was trying to talk to Cohen. Chasse, however, was inside Cohen's house at the time of the stabbing and shooting. As Penobscot County prosecutor Mike Roberts says, "The defendant would have continued the attack if he had not been shot. Mr. Cohen hit him twice and he stayed down."

Although people often believe otherwise, criminals do not routinely sue citizens who shoot them in the course of a crime. "Extremely rare and almost never successful," says New York state Sen. Michael A.L. Balboni, who re-called a criminal suing unsuccessfully for $1 million after being shot by the owner of an inn he was burglarizing in Saratoga Springs. Balboni studied the topic for a Fordham Urban Law Journal article last year and was the prime sponsor of a bill passed this spring to block felons from "adding the ultimate insult to injury" by using state courts to profit from their crimes. "There's something to be said about closing the loophole, if only to save people from being victimized twice by having to pay for a defense," says Balboni.

Police departments occasionally lose such lawsuits, however. In one such instance, the New York Transit Authority paid $4.3 million in 1993 to subway mugger Bernard McCummings for a gunshot wound that paralyzed him nine years earlier while he was fleeing from a robbery. The money was tied up for two more years, until state courts in 1995 rejected a plea to share it with the injured crime victim, Jerome Sandusky, 83.

Most reported self-defense cases occur in the 31 states that allow citizens to carry a concealed weapon. Armed citizens most often use guns against home invaders, store robbers and carjackers. …

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