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, or robbery. The one change to this section of the penal code between 1994 and 1996 was a paragraph that said the requirement to retreat does not apply to someone “who uses force against a person who is at the time of the use of force committing an offense of unlawful entry in the habitation of the actor.” In other words, no one needs to retreat from his home even if he can. If law and morality were always so perfectly joined, and if every use of a gun against a person were—though regrettable—so clearly justified, there would be no movement to ban guns and no reason for a law-abiding citizen to fear anyone carrying a weapon, concealed or not.

The case of Shedrick Bables is not nearly so morally or legally clear because it was not his or another’s life he was protecting, but property. Let’s start with the law. Texas allows considerably more latitude in using deadly force to protect property than most other states, perhaps more than any other state. You can use force to prevent theft or to recover the property in fresh pursuit after the theft. You can use deadly force to prevent theft or criminal mischief during the night or to prevent the flight of a thief during the night if a reasonable person would believe that the property could not be protected or recovered by any other means or that the use of anything less than deadly force would expose you to substantial risk of death or serious injury. It is this quirky allowance of deadly force to prevent theft during the night that sets Texas law apart.

It will be up to the legal system to decide Bables’ fate. It could be that the law will condone what he did. Texas courts have always given great latitude in cases like this. But Bables might be justified even under the strict letter of the law. A theft was in progress, so he had the right to use force to prevent it and to prevent the thieves from escaping. The events occurred during the night, which opened the possibility of legally using deadly force. Since he had been shot at during the previous robbery attempt, it could be argued that he might reasonably believe that anything less than deadly force would have exposed him to physical harm. He came upon the crime as it was being committed, so he was in fresh pursuit of the perpetrators. The boys in the car would have surely tried to escape in it. What means, other than shooting, would there have been to stop their flight?

But it takes a hardened heart to see it that way. Even leaving aside the absurd overkill of the assault rifle, and even assuming that a first shot at a thief in the night is just and right, shooting to kill the boys in the car was an atrocity. It doesn’t take a sophisticated moral philosopher to understand that it’s absolutely wrong and that our laws should be changed to say it is wrong. Jacquline Cummings, the mother of Billy Wayne Cummings, told the Associated Press, “I know my son was doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. But that man didn’t need to kill him. My son wasn’t even carrying a pocketknife. He could have held a gun on them and called the police.” It was an emotional time for her, but her statement has an incontrovertible logic.

If one feels sympathy and support for Perry Jones—as one should—and if one feels contempt for the conduct of Shedrick Bables—as one should—it is because Jones was doing nothing more than protecting himself and his household while Bables had crossed the line from protection to retribution. A citizen may protect, but a citizen may not administer justice. It was not up to Bables to punish those boys. If our laws permit him to, they should be changed so they don’t.

People do not feel safe. That is why we now have the concealed-weapons law. If it makes people feel safer, then that is something good that can be said for it. But may those who carry remember that they are mere protectors and not avenging angels.