Shots in the Dark

AS THE NEW YEAR BEGAN, I found myself still brooding on two grim shootings of lawbreakers that occurred late in December. One passed without much comment while the other was carried in newspapers and on television across the country. Neither incident involved a concealed handgun; the law permitting Texans to carry concealed weapons did not take effect until January 1. But there is no purpose to the new law unless you assume that the circumstances leading to the shootings are more and more common. Moreover, there is no purpose to the new law unless you assume that circumstances like these should be resolved by a gun. I kept asking myself exactly that: Should they?

On December 19, at about a quarter to ten in the evening in a rural subdivision not far from Houston, a man named Perry Jones was asleep in bed with his wife when someone broke the window just a few feet away and climbed through it. Jones shouted at the intruder, but he kept on moving. That’s when Jones picked up a shotgun he kept by his bed and pulled the trigger. The blast killed eighteen-year-old Lemas Jimel Brewer, a football player at the local high school who had never been in any trouble. He was not armed. The local sheriff told the Houston Chronicle that Jones was “almost hysterical” afterward. Jones himself told the newspaper, “I’ve never hurt anybody in my life. This is pretty traumatic.” No charges were filed against Jones.

The second incident involved four boys who, although still in their teens, were close to being professional thieves. At night they left Seagoville, a blue-collar suburb southeast of Dallas, and drove around in search of cars with fancy wheel rims or hubcaps that they could steal. It was petty crime, but maybe the money would seem good if you were still in your teens. A set of used hubcaps could be sold for only $20 or so, although fancy wheels could be sold for considerably more. One of the boys had a pregnant teenage wife who warned him that if he kept stealing, he was going to get shot or get caught and sent to jail. He didn’t listen. Time would prove that she was right.

At 23, Shedrick Bables was only a few years older than the teenage thieves. He lived in the Pleasant Village Apartments, in an area of southeast Dallas that the Hawn Freeway cuts through on its way to Seagoville. Pleasant Village is in a neighborhood of small homes and modest apartments that is tough and beleaguered but has not collapsed. The apartments are a group of functional brick buildings arranged around an open field of grass where kids play games in the afternoon. Streets lined with parking places surround the apartments and crisscross through them. Among the several hundred cars parked there in the early morning hours of December 29 was Shedrick Bables’ Ford Taurus with chrome-plated rally wheels.

Bables was determined that no one would steal his car or his wheels. He equipped the Taurus with a silent alarm that would set off a pager inside his apartment. He was also determined that if he discovered someone fooling with his car, he would be the one with the most firepower. He owned a foreign-made assault rifle that he kept in the apartment. About two weeks earlier, he had discovered thieves trying to steal his car from the parking lot. They had shot at him, and he had blasted at them with the assault rifle, but no one was hurt and the thieves escaped.

When his car alarm went off at about a quarter to six the morning of December 29, Bables emerged from his apartment with his rifle to see a figure in the darkness kneeling by the wheels of his car. He began shooting from about thirty yards away. The figure by the Taurus escaped into an open field behind the apartments. But three teenage boys, apparently confederates of the thief, were sitting in a car nearby. Bables strafed the car with his rifle, unloading about thirty rounds as he walked from one end of the car to the other. One of the three survived, but Jeremy Lowrance, who was sixteen, and Billy Wayne Cummings, who was fifteen, died. Bables fled but was later arrested, jailed, and charged with two counts of murder.

Dallas police sergeant Roger Martin, who worked the case, was besieged by calls from reporters across the country. He was struck by one thing. The reporters from Texas seemed surprised that Bables was in jail. The reporters from outside Texas were incredulous that the law in Texas might exonerate Bables for killing over car wheels.

Would anyone condemn the actions of Perry Jones? His case is such a textbook example of self-defense that it is almost a cliché. Lying in his own bed at night, a window breaking, a warning, and only then a shot. It’s sad about young Brewer. No one would say that a teenager deserves to die for breaking and entering, and Perry Jones’s great remorse shows that he understands this better than anyone. But he had to act on what he knew at the time, which was that someone had broken into his bedroom. Maybe it was an unarmed teenager, but any reasonable person would assume, as Jones did, that it was something much worse.

The right to use deadly force when necessary to protect yourself, your home, and your family from unlawful assault is as basic as any right. It is difficult to think of any other instance involving loss of life that has such moral clarity. The law in Texas supports this right completely, and Texas law is similar in this regard to the law in other states. The threat has to be physical, not just verbal, and the situation has to be one in which a reasonable person would not have retreated. Then and only then, deadly force is lawful to protect your own life or to prevent a kidnapping, murder, sexual assault,

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