Monday, June 2, 2014

Your Opinion Doesn't Negate My Experiences

Let's talk about a form of bullying that doesn't get much attention: dismissiveness. In the debate over gun policy in America, we generally see the antis taking a superior tone and assailing the sanity, maturity, or bravery of anyone who feels the need to be armed. Here's a recent example I encountered on Facebook:

I saw this image shared by someone who likened a fear of being the victim of violence to that of a child being afraid of monsters under the bed. When these folks fall into unison chanting the word "paranoid," the underlying message is that there is no threat. They're saying that you don't need to protect yourself from violence, because there is no such thing. It only exists in people's imaginations, or in Darfur or somewhere like that. Other than maybe a fist fight on the school yard, they've never seen one person harm another, so their normalcy bias tells them that physical safety is the norm. The violence they hear about on the news, they rationalize, is only news because it's so unusual--like a plane crash or someone getting hit by lightning.They think they're safe by default, and that if you think you're not, it's because you've got an anxiety disorder and an overactive imagination.

Allow me to illustrate how wrong they are.

When reading the following, remember, I'm not talking about events in East L.A. or the South Side of Chicago. This didn't take place in East St. Louis or any of the seedier neighborhoods in New York. It wasn't Detroit or Miami. It was Ohio, and not even Cleveland. Some of the events were in a little podunk town of about 22,000 people on the Kentucky border, and the others were in Columbus, a city known more for its college football team and corporate headquarters than for violent crime.

In 1991, I was out for a walk and saw a middle-aged man dragging his wife down the sidewalk by the hair. I mean this literally. The woman was on the ground, hands on her head, screaming, while the man, gripping her by her hair, walked down the sidewalk, dragging her along. I called the police, but otherwise felt helpless to do anything other than yell at him to stop. Why did I feel helpless? Because Ohio law at that time made self-defense (or defense of another) an "affirmative defense," meaning that if I had actually gone and put my hands on the guy, I not only risked being charged with attacking him, I'd also be guilty until I managed to prove myself innocent beyond any reasonable doubt. The woman endured a few more minutes of this torture before an off-duty cop arrived. We had to stand around waiting for an official rescuer to show up to stop the violence.

Around 1992, my girlfriend and I were living on the second-floor of a two-story house that had been divided into two apartments. The man who lived downstairs liked to beat his wife, and we naively called the police when he did so. This got us on his bad side. As a result, he started making a habit of getting drunk and yelling for me to come down and fight him. Sometimes he'd do this from his own apartment. Other times, he'd stand in the street and do it. Typically, we ignored it. One morning, though, we awoke to find the frame of our door broken and big, muddy footprints on the outside of the door. He had very nearly succeeded in kicking in our door while we were asleep, and we didn't even hear it. Had he given it just one more kick, there's no telling how far he might have gotten before we woke up, or what he'd have managed to do to us, as we were unarmed.

We called the police, but they said we'd have to go talk to the prosecutor. I took pictures of the footprints and the broken door frame, and went to the prosecutor's office. He did nothing, saying we couldn't reasonably say who did it. We complained to the landlord. He fixed the door frame, but the people downstairs remained.

Maybe a year or so after that, my girlfriend's crazy uncle (one of them) parked up the street and waited for me to leave for school. After I left, he knocked on the door. She opened the door a bit, and he tried to force his way in. She tried to shut him out, but he got one foot in the door and stopped it from closing. She sat on the floor leaning against the door to keep him out, and he kept trying to force his way in, yelling threats and obscenities the whole time. Eventually, she was able to reach a hammer I'd left at the bottom of the stairs, and used it to pound his foot. He withdrew it in pain, and she slammed the door shut and locked it.

He was gone by the time police arrived. To my knowledge, no warrant was ever issued for his arrest.

A few years after that, we were living in another upstairs apartment. Our downstairs neighbor apparently had an unpaid gambling debt, and his creditor showed up late one night, angry and too drunk to tell which door went to which apartment. My wife and I were woken by the sound of this man yelling and trying to kick in our door. As luck would have it, I had a .22 rifle I had borrowed from my father-in-law for use on my trap line. I grabbed the gun, took a position at the top of the stairs, and yelled to the man trying to break in. He heard me, saw me through the window, and ran away. We called the police. They found him hiding in our back yard.

In 2003, I was working nights as a police officer, so I was sleeping during the day. Across the street from my apartment was a car wash. One afternoon, I was woken by a loud argument at the car wash. I looked out the window and saw one car ram into another one. It looked deliberate. The first car started backing up, and I thought I was witnessing a hit-and-run, so I put on my glasses and tried to read the license plate. But instead of fleeing, the car was just backing up to ram a second time. I pulled on my jeans and duty belt, grabbed my wallet, and ran barefoot across the street. By the time I reached the driver, she had turned the car around and was trying to run down a pedestrian (her husband). I managed to pull her out of the car before she could hit him.

When I showed up for her trial, charges were dropped and she was referred for a psychiatric assessment. I don't recall any mention of her driver's license being revoked.

In 2004, three weeks after my wife and I moved into our first house, one of our neighbors tried to shoot another neighbor. I was still a police officer (in another jurisdiction), and a first responder as well by that time, so I went out to see if anyone needed medical attention while my wife called the local police. The bystanders were more freaked out seeing a cop with body armor and a shotgun on scene than they were about the shooting itself. About 15-20 minutes later, a township police car rolled by and I ran down the street waving at them to get them to stop. It was the last time in that neighborhood I bothered to report hearing shots fired.

This neighborhood has some wooded lots that were apparently popular places for criminals to hide, so the police helicopter pretty regularly buzzed over our house, circling the area looking for fleeing suspects. I can remember at least two different times when officers came through our back yard there searching for someone. It got to the point that whenever we heard the helicopter circling, we just locked the doors and turned on the outside lights. It was routine to have fugitives running loose in our neighborhood looking for a place to hide.

Sometime after this, I saw in the news that in the parking lot of the first apartment building I had lived in in Columbus, one man had hit another man in the head with a hatchet.

In 2010, our next-door neighbor called and said she saw some young men stashing something in the wood lot across the street from her. I checked it out and found what appeared to be stolen property. I contacted the owner of the lot, who lived just a couple doors up the street from us. He loaded the loot into his car and then turned it over to the police. The young men my neighbor saw in the woods came back to retrieve their stash. I went out to confront them and get their license plate number. They sped away. After that, my son and I left to run an errand. While we were gone, the thieves came back with reinforcements, knocking on our door. By the time my wife hid our baby daughter behind cover and got a gun, the thugs had moved on up the street. When they knocked on the door of the man who had turned the stuff over to the police, he answered it. The man knocking pulled a gun on my neighbor and demanded the loot. My neighbor then pulled out his concealed handgun and pistol whipped the assailant. The other thugs, who had been standing in the street holding sticks and rocks, dropped their weapons and ran...or tried to, anyway. The neighbor's sons grabbed a couple of the guys and beat the stuffing out of them before they got away.

We spent the rest of that day and much of the next couple days holed up in the house, worrying that the thieves would return with more men and better weapons. We had two young children to protect, and nowhere else to go. We had to be ready to fend off an attack if it came.

In 2012, animal rights activists started stealing my chickens and damaging my fences and chicken coops, but they didn't stop there. At one point, they used a ladder to climb into our house through a second-story window, and stole a bow, an axe, and arrows with broadheads. These are not things you want in the hands of someone who regards you as an enemy.

A few weeks after that, I caught some trespassers on my land, and one of them had stolen a knife out of my greenhouse. My phone was dead, so with a sledge hammer in one hand, I marched them next door and had a neighbor call the police. (I was hoping I had caught the chicken thieves.) While we were waiting for the police to arrive, one of the men said, "I'm not going back to jail," and walked away. I placed my free hand on the other guy's shoulder and he stayed. He had been very cooperative, returned my knife (which was broken and only worth $3.50 when it was new) without my even asking, and seemed to have been dragged into this by the troublemaker who ran away. When the prosecutor interviewed me, I spoke as strongly as I could in favor of showing the young man leniency. She was happy to hear it, but later called back and said he was in other trouble, too, and they were sending him to prison on felony charges instead.

I don't imagine that fellow is too happy with me. After he gets hardened in prison, I can't be certain that he'll be quite so agreeable when he gets out.

Also in 2012, a burglar broke into our house three days in a row. The first two days, he stole most of my tools and I filed a police report. The third day, I was waiting for him with a gun. When the police arrived, the burglar claimed he was just looking for some water because his car was overheating, and the sergeant let him go. Let me repeat that. The burglar had prior convictions for Receiving Stolen Property. He had a record of domestic violence. I had a report on file from just two days earlier. He came in the same way as the thief who had stolen my tools, but the police let him go...when he was caught in the act of a felony.

I had to go to the prosecutor's office myself to file charges. I was told that since a police officer didn't file the charges, they could only pursue misdemeanor charges against the burglar. He appeared on both the trespassing charge and a domestic violence charge, and got a suspended sentence of 30 days, with a warning not to contact me. Weeks later, as I was walking my son home from school, the burglar accosted me on the sidewalk. He asked if I knew who he was, and when I said that I didn't, he replied, "You stuck a gun in my face?" He then went on to tell me there were "no hard feelings," as though I were the one who had done something wrong. My son and I continued home, and I called the man's probation officer to report this violation. Then I went to court to get a protection order.

Last year, a man I know a couple blocks away needed some money and went to a neighbor's house to try to sell him a knife. The neighbor wasn't home, so after knocking a while, the man returned home and went to sleep. When the neighbor returned home, another neighbor (who has a well-known habit of making up lies about people just to start trouble), said that my friend had threatened to kill the family and cut off their heads with that knife. Neighbor #1 looked at his security camera video and saw footage of my friend standing on the porch with a knife in his hand. Rather than call the police right away or even investigate the matter further on his own, this neighbor decided to dispense some hillbilly justice. He rounded up his entire family, they strapped on their guns, and they went banging on my friend's door. They ordered his girlfriend to go wake him up and tell him to come out so they could beat him up. She refused, and they told her that if she didn't, they'd kill her, him, their other housemate, and the two dogs. To her credit, she stood firm and yelled at them to go away. As they left, they told her that she'd better find another place to live, because they'd be coming back to kill her if she didn't.

THEN the neighbor called the police. When the officer came around to interview the girlfriend who'd been threatened, she wanted to file a report. The officer wouldn't take one, instead saying, "I'd have done the same thing if I were them!"

There are two lessons I want you to take away from these stories: 1) at least in southern and central Ohio, the danger of violent crime is very real, and 2) you can't rely on the police to protect you from it. You can't even count on them after the fact to put the assailant away to keep it from happening again. As on a battlefield, there are people who will try to harm you, and it's up to you to stop them from succeeding. They might sometimes have guns, legal or not. Given these facts, what is the best way to deal with such a threat? Maybe you want to stick your head in the sand and imagine that you'll talk your way out of any threat that comes along. You're free to take that risk. But for the love of all that is good, don't try to impose that risk on others, and stop insisting that people who take rational measures to keep themselves alive are paranoid or childish for doing so.