Hot Bullets, Cold Truth
How to prepare for the investigators, lawyers, revenge seekers and media hounds after shooting an attacker in self-defense
Wes Denham is the author of “Arrested! What To Do When Your Loved One’s In Jail” and co-author with Dale Carson of “Arrest-Proof Yourself!”
When you shoot someone in self-defense, your life goes from copacetic to crazy in seconds. The consequences go on for years.
It’s not like on TV, not even close. On TV, bad guys get blown backward. In real life, they keep coming. So bang, then bang-bang.
Now, if you weren’t shot, or knifed, or bludgeoned, you now have a gun in your hand and a body — maybe dead, maybe not — at your feet. You hear moans and screams. People run, mill about, shout.
There are stenches — burned powder, which is acrid, and ruptured intestines, which are rancid. You might see white bone, gray brain, yellow fat and red muscle. Red blood spurts from arteries, black blood from liver. Yellow bile, gray acid and the parti-colored pieces of the last meal may roll onto your shoes.
Shooting someone, you see, is horrible. Nonetheless, there’s a way to save yourself and those you love, legally.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll stay out of prison.
You won’t like the advice. Owning a gun, and readying yourself to kill another human being, is an undertaking more solemn, and more long lasting, than most marriages. You might, with reason, ponder the effect on your mortal soul of shooting a human being.
You should, but don’t forget the carcass that clings to it. Even if God absolves your spirit, the state of Florida may consign your body to one of its 140 sun-scorched prisons.
In order to use a firearm responsibly, you’re going to have to spend more money than you now think, practice more than you want, and ponder things you’d rather avoid.
First, forget what you’ve heard about Florida and its “stand your ground” laws. Here’s what you need to know: Florida makes it easy to buy a firearm and obtain a concealed carry permit but difficult to avoid prison if you shoot someone, even in self-defense.
WHAT DOES ‘STAND YOUR GROUND’ MEAN?
The man-on-the-street understanding of “stand your ground” is roughly this: “If somebody gets in my face, I’m gonna empty a clip into that asshole and put him down like a dog!” Believe this, and you’ll earn a cell on death row.
So what is “standing your ground”? Florida has always recognized that you can use deadly force in self-defense. The 2005 “stand your ground” law (Google FS 776.012 and FS 776.013 to see the text) expands the principle to state that, if you reasonably believe you are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, you no longer have a duty to retreat before you fire. Thus, you can stand your ground, and claim self-defense when you’re arrested and tried.
The statute also makes it unnecessary, if you’re attacked in your vehicle or home, to prove in court that you were in such fear. The law simply stipulates that, in case of unlawful entry, you are in danger of death or great bodily harm.
It would be accurate to say that “stand your ground” firms up the principle of self-defense, but only to the degree that St. Johns River mud is firmer than quicksand. If you’ve ever walked barefooted in that brown ooze, you know it will hold your weight, but sharp-edged clams will slide up between your toes, eels will wriggle amid your feet, and shards of glass and iron from before the Big Fire will nip off a little piggy quicker than a bad surgeon.
“Stand your ground” has written limitations found in statute and court decisions and unwritten rules which cops, judges and state attorneys know but which they will disclose to you too late, if ever, when you’re before the bar in jumpsuit and chains. Lastly, there are the politics of “stand your ground,” which are smarmy.
It is impolite, of course, to hint that elected sheriffs, elected judges and elected state attorneys are influenced by the opinions of voters, the remarks of gnarled newspaper scribblers and the expressions of splendidly coiffed and barbered TV news beings. But they are. Every time there’s a grisly self-defense shooting, flacks pop out of the Police Memorial Building and courthouse to shield elites from media burn, not to help you, Mr. and Ms. Public, understand things.
So understand this:
1. You must be lawfully present where the shooting occurs. You cannot trespass or be in someone else’s house or car without permission. As soon as you get into an argument on someone else’s property, you are not lawfully present. When the shouting and pushing start, your visitation privileges are canceled.
2. You cannot be engaged in any unlawful act. If you chugged six beers while driving, sucked on a bong or gobbled those oxy-darlings you so artfully lied for at the Walmart pharmacy, your claim of self-defense will melt away just like your liver. What if, as is so often the case, the person you shoot is your drug dealer or customer? When you hear the sirens, just assume the position and hold your hoodlum hands out for the cuffs. “Stand your ground” is not a right, it’s a privilege, and it’s for law-abiding citizens only.
3. You must reasonably be in fear of death or great bodily harm. If you are defending someone else, you must reasonably believe that person is in fear of death or great bodily harm. This is easy to say but not easy to define in a courtroom.
4. You must not be the aggressor. Case in point: On Nov. 23, 2012, Michael David Dunn pulled into a Gate gas station at Southside and Baymeadows near a Durango filled with young men who were blasting music and being annoying in that ineffable, teenaged way. Dunn stated he thought he saw a shotgun. His response was to grab a Glock from the glove box, charge the Durango, and fire multiple shots into the teenagers’ vehicle, killing Jordan Davis, 17. Dunn may claim self-defense under “stand your ground,” but it won’t hold because Dunn was the aggressor and police found no shotgun.
5. You must not pursue your attacker or shoot him in the back if he flees. Case in point: In 2011, Anthony Renardo Norman was applying fists to Jennifer Charlotte Goodman’s eyeballs and jaw as he dragged her by the hair through the fragrant precincts of Shortreed Street near West Beaver Street. Goodman summoned her brothers, who opened a can of whoopass on Renardo. While her lover absorbed kicks and stomps, Goodman ran out of danger, entered the kitchen, then returned to the scene with a long knife which she plunged into his chest. The charge is second-degree murder. The judge rejected Goodman’s assertion of self-defense, apparently without irony.
6. You must not fire a warning shot. Case in point: On Aug. 1, 2010, Marissa Alexander and husband Rico Gray were having one of their periodic fights. Who shouted what and who pummeled whom are in dispute, because both parties changed their stories constantly. What’s not in dispute is that Alexander disengaged, then ran alone into the garage to grab a gun. She then re-entered the house, restarted the scrum, and fired a warning round into a wall. She claimed a “stand your ground” defense; a jury of her peers took 12 minutes to decide otherwise. Now, she’s on ice for a mandatory 20 years. Outrage at the sentence was loud, long and ineffectual. Florida legislators, Florida cops and Florida courts do not like warning shots. Fire one and weep.
7. You must not brandish a weapon or hold a potential attacker at gunpoint. See above. Oh, yeah, don’t shoot into the back of a fleeing vehicle. The only place that’s not attempted murder is on the idiot box.
ROLLING THE BONES
Shooting someone in self-defense is never as straightforward as the gung-ho prose of gun magazines suggests. Under the ghastly orange of sodium street lamps, on bloody asphalt amid the blinking blue and red lights, things get very problematic very fast.
You can, however, roughly estimate the probability that your “stand your ground” claim has a chance. Here are the odds, laid out the way craps players calculate them in the Jacksonville Jail, where dice lovingly crafted from toilet paper, toothpaste and pencil lead rattle off the walls from morning wake-up to lights out:
1. The attackers were strangers.
2. They invaded your home or vehicle.
3. They had guns or knives, and the police recovered said guns and knives.
4. You were squeaky-clean on the seven “stand your ground” conditions listed earlier.
5. You did not hit bystanders with ricochet, fragmentation and spall.
… then you have a strong chance for a successful claim of self-defense. You win. Don’t roll the dice again; just go home. Stop at a church along the way.
Eight, the Hard Way
1. Neighbors who despise you will be witnesses.
2. You once knew, did business with, or had sex with, your attackers.
3. You have prior misdemeanors for assault or domestic violence.
… then you will probably be arrested at the scene or later. Start dialing for dollars. A private legal defense with private detectives to re-interview the witnesses and untangle their lies and private labs to re-check and challenge the forensics will start at $25,000. It will be a hard slog, but you haven’t crapped out yet.
1. You’re a convicted felon.
2. You were drunk or wasted.
3. You shot someone who took out a restraining order against you.
4. You had drugs, illegal firearms, heavy cash and stolen merchandise on your person or in your vehicle.
5. You were burglarizing buildings, robbing citizens, cutting dope, counting swag or selling women before attackers rudely interrupted you.
6. You beat the shit out of your attackers before you shot them.
7. You shot your attackers in the back or through the head at close range.
… then you’ve crapped out. Hopefully you committed your mama’s telephone number to memory, because your cell phone and its contact list are histoire — already bagged and tagged and in the cruiser — like you.
HOW TO REMAIN UNDEAD AND UNINDICTED (MAYBE)
So how do you shoot attackers to save your life and the lives of your family and minimize your legal jeopardy? What follows is information from the co-author of my first book, Dale C. Carson, a former FBI sniper and currently a criminal defense attorney. He knows guns, he knows the law, and his recommendations are rock-solid. So pay attention:
1. To warn assailants, put your hand on your revolver and say, “I’m armed.” Do not brandish the weapon. This is a felony. If you take the gun out, intend to use it.
2. If you shoot, keep firing until an attacker is down. In the confusion, you won’t know whether you’ve hit your assailant. If he flees, stop shooting. Otherwise, you are looking at a murder charge. Ditto if you shoot him in the back.
3. Don’t shoot from more than 10 feet outside your home. This is an unwritten rule, but it makes sense. If you shoot from a longer distance, cops, judges and juries will question whether you were truly threatened. Inside the house, by contrast, the law stipulates that you are threatened when invaders enter. So blast down that long stairwell or across the living room. Save yourself and your family.
4. When an attacker goes down, kick his gun away, but not too far. Do not put your fingerprints on it. Step on the gun — repeat, step on it. Bystanders will attempt a quick snatch. In my neighborhood, every kid older than 5 knows you can sell a gun faster than a gold doubloon.
5. Do NOT administer a “coup de grace” shot to the head. This turns self-defense into murder most foul.
6. Dial 911. When the dispatcher answers, say the following: “I was attacked. There’s been a shooting at (your address or whereabouts). Send an ambulance and a supervisor.” Now hang up. Don’t say another word. Do not allow the dispatcher to interrogate you on a recorded phone call.
7. Photograph the victim, gun, witnesses and the scene. Email the pictures to yourself or upload them to the cloud immediately, if possible. The cops will make herculean efforts to grab your phone, tablet and camera. Make sure they are password-protected so they cannot be dumped without a warrant.
8. If the guy you shot is alive, you must render aid. If this sounds disgusting, it is.
9. If the bad guy flees, you must report it to police. If you hit the guy and he goes to a hospital, the staff will report the shooting. When they ask the lowlife what happened, he will lie and say that you attacked him!
10. If you are no longer at risk, don’t leave the scene.
WHAT'CHA GONNA DO WHEN THEY COME FOR YOU?
First, the good news. If you’re standing after firing your weapon at an attacker, you’re not dead. Now, the bad news. The popo are on the way. You have mere minutes to do all the things listed to the left.
It gets worse. After you shoot someone, your body will flood with adrenaline. Your arms and legs will shake, and your tongue will stutter. Worst of all, the adrenaline coursing through your arteries will shut down your pre-frontal cortex, the area that governs speech and logical thought. You are about to be interrogated by police with half your brain out of action.
This is not good.
When the cops show, you will be juiced on adrenaline, paralyzed with fear and gnawed by guilt. The urge to talk will be unbearable. If you do, you will babble, contradict yourself, forget, lie and confuse. Your very soul will ache for understanding, forgiveness and absolution.
Cops are not your priests; they’re your inquisitors. Here is Carson’s recommendation. Say these words, and not one syllable more:
1. “I was attacked.”
2. “I am the victim.”
3. “I acted in self-defense.”
4. “I will swear out a complaint against my attacker.”
5. “I will be glad to talk to you after I have consulted my attorney.”
It is not possible to remember these sentences at the scene of a shooting, so fill out the “cop card” printed here and carry it in your wallet, next to your weapons permit and driver’s license. It’s similar to the cards law enforcement officers carry. These contain contact info for the union reps and the attack-dog attorneys who defend police when they screw up.
Here’s the reasoning behind the statements: From the police point of view, it’s rarely obvious who attacked whom. After all, a body is on the ground, and you are standing there with a gun. It is crucial to clarify that you were attacked and that you were the victim. Naturally you should say you acted in self-defense and will swear out a complaint. Your legal defense starts now.
Item five, that you will talk only after consultation with an attorney, is crucial. The cops will be at you like a pack of terriers. You, however, are not a rat to be shaken in the sharp teeth of criminal justice. You’re a citizen, so act like one. You do so by repeating, one time, the statements on the card then handing it to police.
You have now made both a verbal and written statement. Do not elaborate, do not answer further questions, and do not argue. Turn away and sit down. Grab gum or cigarettes if you need them to calm your nerves and control your mouth.
When cops ask to search your car and home and to grab your phones, computers, tablets and cameras, say a single word: “No.”
Remember, you’re only doing what cops themselves do. When police get popped for pounding their wives, shooting innocents or skimming dope or cash before it goes to evidence, do you think they throw open their homes, hand over their computers, then rush into an interrogation room to chatter into a digital recorder sans lawyer?
No, and hell no.
In the days that follow, your attorney can get a copy of the police report, which states in detail what the police think happened, and which they will submit to the Florida State Attorney for prosecution. You or private detectives might be able to get favorable statements from witnesses. Photos and videos you took at the scene can be analyzed by you and your attorney to identify people and details you may have forgotten.
Do not talk with friends or relatives except to say that there was a shooting, it was horrible, and you can’t discuss it further. Do not talk to the media.
AS THE BODY COOLS
Even as your attacker congeals in the medical examiner’s lockers at 11th and Jefferson streets, you’ve got other problems not of the cop-ly kind. If your attacker was part of a criminal crew, they will come for payback. Crew enforcers will go out as soon as the police leave or the next day. They will remind everyone what will happen should they testify on your behalf.
They will be asking for your name, car description and license number. If they’re feeling grumpy, they’ll pack the death cab with high-caliber rifles and ammo and try to saw your house off its foundations.
If you feel threatened, blow town — at once. Tell no one where you are. Your relatives and friends can be pressured to talk. Have your attorney communicate with police and negotiate protection during court appearances.
In other parts of town, enemies more clever than the attacker you shot will gather. Along the St. Johns River, the print and TV newsers will decide whether to portray you sympathetically, as a citizen who fired bravely in self-defense, or as a hate-crazed yahoo who blasted a troubled but likable youth in callous disregard for the laws of humanity.
In print, the shooting may appear as a single paragraph in the crime round-up or blaze across the front page in 4-inch headlines.
On TV, if the media gods smile, you will get a brief mention with no video, just a map. If not, expect a blood-red crawl across the bottom of the screen and video of neighbors screaming, pointing and accusing you as the news presenters’ eyebrows leap up in well-rehearsed outrage.
If you and the person you shot are of different races or ethnicities, activists might rally at the courthouse, city hall and Police Memorial Building, placards held aloft. They’ll give the mayor, the presiding judge and the sheriff serious heat as soon as the antenna masts go up and the red lights flick on atop the cameras.
There’s more. Expect to see guys in short-sleeves with pad folios knocking on doors and getting nosy with neighbors. These are investigators for the plaintiff, who are sniffing around to see if you have assets, insurance and real estate they can seize. In civil court, the standards for a wrongful death judgment are lower than in criminal proceedings.
If you’re indicted, and later sued, the legal proceedings can become a hairball. Expect to see photos of the guy you shot in his Sunday suit or his coffin tuxedo. Forget trying to send the media his mug shots and rap sheets. They won’t care if they’ve got the victim narrative in place. These trials can last for years and be ruinously expensive and utterly appalling.
Nonetheless, when rage-heads, crazies and drunk-on-violence thugs come to take your life, there are two choices if you cannot flee. You can do nothing, and you will die. Or you can open fire, survive and let the hell-show begin. And these, shooter, are the only options: bad and worse.
In Crime City.