Victims’ Voices of Josephine County
By K. David Smith
This column is the third in a series that aims to give the human perspective behind the crisis in criminal justice funding in Josephine County, Oregon. For further background about this series, the background behind it, and the stories of other people who have been affected by the loss of public safety funding in the County, please click here:
In the Northwest neighborhood of Grants Pass, not far from Highland Elementary School, a woman in her late sixties enters her house. She carries in her groceries, puts down her keys. It is the middle of the day. She has no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary.
Then she smells the reek of stale cigarettes. She does not smoke, so this is strange. She puts down the groceries, tries to follow the smell.
A young man is climbing out one of the windows. She does not know him, does not know why he would be there. She calls out, but he flees before she can get a good look at him. Young. A smoker. Someone who doesn’t belong there. That is pretty much all she knows.
Only then, as she hears him running away from the house, does it occur to her to be scared. Up until now, she has been too surprised to think about what is happening. Or, worse, what might have happened. Now, though, she has time to think it through.
She calls the police. They search the neighborhood, but the young man is not found. Was anything taken? She doesn’t know – it hasn’t occurred to her yet to look. The police wait while she does a quick inventory. It seems that he got away with little, if anything. She must have walked in just moments after the would-be thief had entered, before he had a chance to do more than look around.
There is little more that the police can do beyond taking a report and asking her to call if she discovers anything further. They leave a card with a phone number to call, just in case.
Once they leave, she is not sure what to do. It is starting to sink in: her home has been broken into. She was alone in her house with a strange man, a young man who meant to steal from her. Who knows why, or what else he might have intended. She was very lucky – it might have been much worse.
She knows that one of her neighbors is a cop. She calls him, and he comes over. She calls her adult daughter, who lives not far away. There have been other break-ins in the neighborhood, apparently. Another one on her own street, as it turns out – a car broken into – and a house around the corner from her daughter’s that was robbed not just once, but twice, the second time picked clean.
The neighbor and her daughter help secure her windows and give her tips on how to keep her home and herself as safe as possible. Still, the thief has not, as of this writing, been caught. The woman still feels violated. Her view of her neighborhood and even her own home has changed. Her daughter is helping her weigh the pros and cons of an alarm system. It’s an expense, but might keep her safer. If she remembers to use it. If she sets it at night. If a would-be burglar is truly deterred by an alarm, which is an unknown.
The main concern for her daughter is to keep her mom from being hurt. Possessions can be replaced. Life and limb cannot.
Victims’ Voices of Josephine County – Story #3 Addendum
In the interest of having an honest, substantive, reality based discussion in this County that gets past the ideological talking points, I’d like to contribute the following response to a reader’s contribution advocating that our Victim #3 consider concealed carry.
We hear this response a lot, anytime there is a discussion of crime in the County. We’re no doubt going to keep hearing it. This particular case is, on its surface, a classic scenario that “proves” the point the folks arguing for an armed citizenry as an answer to our crisis are trying to make. A home invasion. Guy in the house, trying to rob an older woman. Get gun, solve problem. Right? At least, as a deterrent, if more people were armed, the creeps would think twice.
I’m going to set aside the second part of this (the deterrent question), for this simple reason: if anyone can think of a county in Oregon where more people already have guns in their homes than ours, I’d love to hear about it. Guns are commonplace in JoCo. They’re part of our culture. I’d guess that the majority of the folks in the County already have some kind of firearm in their home. It’s not stopping the problem. But let’s not argue that point, for now. Let’s stick with this situation in particular for a moment, because it is a classic case for studying the armed response to home invasion question – just not in the way my reader friend anticipated.
Let’s take this situation and break down his idea that concealed carry (or, more broadly, any kind of armed response) would have been the answer here. We have here an older woman walking into her home unexpectedly and finding a man in the process of climbing out of her window. Some will immediately think “concealed carry!” O…. kay…. Break it down.
1) She doesn’t know if he’s armed – indeed, she doesn’t know if he’s done anything other than enter her house;
2) She is not under any immediate threat (that she knows of);
3) He is in the process of trying to escape, not attack.
Even in the absolute best-case scenario – this grandma has a concealed weapon on her person, is trained to react properly and appropriately, is quick-thinking enough to remember that she even has a weapon and remember how to draw it without fumbling or shooting herself, and is a good shot even under stress (all of which are exceedingly unlikely without military or LEO training) – she would be utterly unjustified in shooting this man. In fact, she would likely be charged with a crime if she tried.
Yes, she’d likely get off under the “stand your ground” clauses in Oregon law, but she would still be charged. Beyond the legality of her actions, ethically speaking, she would not be justified in shooting a man who is not threatening her. (She cannot shoot a man in defense of her property, remember. Just her life, or that of another.) Any number of thoughtful discussions of armed personal defense – Massad Ayoob’s many books and columns, just to pick one example – would say the same.
Consider, then, the tactical question. Even assuming the same best-case scenario as above, think: what’s her backstop? She’s in a crowded neighborhood. Near an elementary school. It’s broad daylight. He’s going out through an open window. The chances that she’ll hit an innocent bystander – in that neighborhood, during the school year or even just on an ordinary summer day when school is not in session – are quite high. Better, in fact, than the chances that she’ll hit the offender. The chances of unintended tragedy are considerably higher than those of “solving” her home invasion – even assuming shooting the guy is any kind of acceptable or ethical solution.
In every sense, the “concealed carry” response to this particular story is an off-base distraction. Even if she had a concealed weapon (or an open-carry weapon, or a shotgun leaned up against her refrigerator) and was prepared to defend herself and/or her home, it wouldn’t have done squat to help her. If we’re going to have a reasonable, honest, fact-based dialogue in this county about the public safety situation – as opposed to an ideologically based shouting match that gets us nowhere – we need to get past the knee-jerk responses.
You could argue, I imagine, that the cops wouldn’t be much help in this case either – indeed, weren’t – because they come too late. And in a narrow sense, that’s right. But here’s the thing: most of these guys would be in jail, if we had the funding to put them there. The cops know who most of these jerks are. The problem is they have nowhere to put them. Get them off the streets, charge them, put them in prison, and most of our problem would be done.
(Not all of it, for sure. But that’s a whole other discussion, about the effectiveness of the prison system as a deterrent, the roots of criminality, punishment versus reform, and so on.)
I’m happy to have a discussion about the merits and demerits, pros and cons of armed response as an answer – one of many answers – to our public safety crisis. But let’s make it a reasoned discussion. And let’s face the fact that guns are an iffy, chancy solution to a home invasion scenario, which is the one most of our discussions have centered around. How does it help prevent being killed by a drunk driver? Or having your identity stolen, or being a victim of fraud? How does it help you if you aren’t home when the burglars hit? And when, even under the “classic” scenario of defending your home and loved ones, are you truly justified in shooting someone – and when are you not?
Have at it. Just please be thoughtful about it. We need answers, not slogans.
The author, K. David Smith, graduated from Harvard College cum laude in 1991. A former management consultant and healthcare policy analyst, he currently resides near Merlin, Oregon, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Pacific University. He is also the father of three young boys and an active member of Securing Our Safety. You can contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org