Study: Out of 146 self-defense shooting claims across the nation, 12 led to charges

Lyvette and Daniel Crespo’s relationship started when they were teens in New York City and they married in 1987 shortly after graduating high school. They had kids, established careers, and moved to California where Daniel would become the mayor of a small city in Los Angeles County. But problems amounted over the years and it all abruptly ended on Sept. 30, 2014, when an argument escalated to violence inside their Bell Gardens’ home.

Lyvette told authorities Daniel started punching her until their then 19-year-old son intervened, so Daniel shifted his attention to his son. As the two men struggled, Lyvette, wanting to protect her son, grabbed a gun and shot her husband three times in the chest. As Daniel bled on the floor, their son called 911 for help, but it was too late. Daniel died at the hospital a short time later. He was 45.

While Lyvette and her son have maintained that she acted in self-defense, police investigators thought otherwise. Seven months after the shooting, Lyvette was indicted by a grand jury and charged with voluntary manslaughter. Prosecutors claimed she acted “unlawfully and without malice” when she took her husband’s life “upon a sudden quarrel and heat of passion.”

Like many self-defense shootings that result in criminal charges, when the public starts to scrutinize details surrounding the scenario the morality of the situation may start to blur. In Lyvette’s case readers may likely empathize with her situation but they may also start looking at the details of the fateful night with skepticism. 

Lyvette-Crespo

A photo of Lyvette Crespo battered and bruised after the night of the incident that her attorney released to local media.

Following the incident, Lyvette and her son and daughter described life at home with Daniel as “difficult and intolerable.” They said over the years he had been violent and abusive. They said he had multiple affairs and described horrific moments like Daniel dragging Lyvette through the halls by her hair. The fight that resulted in his death was allegedly over an affair that resulted in a pregnant mistress and him wanting to be with her.

However, Daniel’s brother said he was killed “with malice and in cold blood” when he filed a $50 million wrongful death suit against Lyvette. Shortly thereafter, the mistress’s pregnancy was confirmed but so were messages to Daniel from Lyvette where she expressed jealousy and anger over the pregnancy. And during arguments via text message, she threatened to hurt the mistress and even Daniel if he cheated.

Lyvette pleaded not guilty in May to the charge of voluntary manslaughter. A trail date has not been set.

Needless to say, the Crespo’s had a troubled relationship, but also details of the night of the shooting led authorities to believe that Lyvette may have committed a crime. This is just one of a dozen defensive gun uses that resulted in criminal charges in 2014 and while they’re not all as complex, they share similar elements.

Several times each week Guns.com publishes stories of guns used in everyday defensive scenarios. We ordinarily highlight these stories a single time and rarely revisit them unless they are high-profile cases or there are unique circumstances surrounding the case, such as when the victim ignores a no-weapons policy only to use the carried firearm defensively.

While with the latter we will typically explore whether the person faced any repercussions for going against said policy, we wanted to take a bigger look at defensive gun uses as a whole and determine how often armed citizens face legal ramifications for using a firearm in self-defense.

Determining the criteria for defensive gun uses

Although the estimated number of defensive gun uses that occur each year varies significantly from source to source, a study conducted by the Violence Policy Center put estimates at roughly 67,000 annual cases of defensive gun use, meaning the mere presence of a firearm — threatened, brandished or fired — stopped a crime.

Studying reports by local and national media, we identified a total of 379 defensive gun uses in 2014. In each case, a gun owner used a firearm in defense of him- or herself or others, or to protect property. Of those, we were able to determine if charges had been filed in 146 cases.

Throughout this report, “suspect” refers to the person the individual who claimed self-defense was said to be defending themselves against – regardless of what charges were incurred in the end – and “victim” refers to the individual claiming self-defense.

When collecting the data, no cases were used that involved on-duty police officers, security guards or other type of law enforcement using a gun in self-defense. However, cases involving off-duty law enforcement officers who used a gun in self-defense as a civilian were included. Exceptions were also made for instances where no-knock warrants were served and the residents believed the law enforcement officers were intruders.

We also included cases in which a shooting occurred when an individual who had a right to be in a home was mistaken for an intruder.

Cases were only counted where the gun belonging to a potential victim was used. No instances were included where the victim was able to take a gun from the suspect and, in turn, use it against him or her. The only exceptions were cases of domestic assaults where a gun was in the home, but not determined which individual legally owned it.

Only cases in the U.S. were used, and cases were included from every state except Hawaii and South Dakota. These were excluded simply because, not to say they did not occur, but no cases of defensive gun uses were found to be readily available in those states.

Cases were also excluded if it was determined that secondary illegal activities, such as drug manufacturing or distribution, were involved. For example, if a defensive gun use occurred when an individual broke into a home with the intention to steal drugs that were known to be in the home, that case was excluded. However, if authorities determined that a suspect broke into a home looking for prescription medications, the case was included.

Cases in which individuals used a gun to protect themselves against animals – wild or tame – were not counted.

We did not include instances where BB, pellet, airsoft, toy or other type of replica guns were used by the potential victim, but we did include cases where those types of guns could have been used by the suspect. In most states, there is no legal discrepancy made between real and fake guns when they are used during the commission of a crime, since they all have the potential to instill fear in the victim.

Detailing and analyzing the data

We organized cases by state, including the city in which they occurred, the date and the incident characteristic or what type of crime was involved. In addition, each case listing shows, if a shooting occurred, whether it was fatal, if the suspect was also armed and whether the state has a stand-your-ground law or a “duty to retreat,” which requires an individual to flee a threatening situation if they’re able to do so. Any special information was also included, along with a link to a report detailing the event (click here for the raw data).

Of the original 379 cases we reviewed, Texas saw the greatest number of defensive gun uses with 45 incidents, followed by Florida with 37 and California with 25. Excluding Hawaii and South Dakota, which produced no cases, the states with the fewest cases were Alaska, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Vermont – all yielded a single case. However, it should be noted these numbers are only a portion of the total defensive gun uses in the country last year and the list is by no means exhaustive.

The most prominent crime being committed when a defensive gun use occurred was a home invasion or burglary. This accounted for 189 – or 50 percent – of the total cases we reviewed. Robberies and carjackings were the second most common, with 108 cases or 28 percent. Assaults or threats of assault accounted for 11 percent, with 43 cases, and domestic cases, which were defined as any involving two individuals in a current or prior intimate relationship regardless of where the incident occurred, made up 9 percent of the total, with 33 cases. Six cases – or 2 percent – were miscellaneous or unknown crimes.

Most of the crimes occurred in May and August, followed by July and September. Generally speaking, the warmer the weather, the higher the crime rate.

The majority – about 53 percent – of defensive gun uses did not end in fatalities, although most – 55 percent – of the suspects were armed. Sometimes, however, it’s not known if the suspects survived. For example, news outlets may report the suspect is in critical condition and not provide a follow-up, so it’s unknown if the suspect recovered.

“Very, very seldom do they get prosecuted,” Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, told Guns.com.

Of the 146 cases which we were able to determine whether charges had been filed, only about 10 percent – 15 cases – ended in legal ramifications. However, three of those 15 were miscellaneous charges, such as discharging a firearm within city limits or possession of a weapon, instead of charges pertaining directly to employing the weapon against another person. The remaining 131 cases did not or were not expected to result in any charges.

The details of the 12 cases that resulted in charges stemming directly from the use of lethal force vary greatly, and will be the focus for the remainder of this report.

Eight of the 12 cases ended with the death of the suspect, while the remaining four were non-fatal incidents. Eight of the suspects were not armed and the other four were in possession of what was perceived to be some type of weapon.

As with the larger portion of overall cases, most of these instances – seven of the 12 – were the result of a home invasion or burglary, followed by domestic cases, disorderly conduct, harassment and assault.

Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told Guns.com that more self-defense shootings and even aggravated assaults occur in states with stand-your-ground laws.

“You’re allowing people who can safely walk away from a conflict in public to instead stand in and kill the other party,” he said. “The law should act to preserve life, not squander it.”

Past studies of self-defense laws spanning years 2005 to 2010 show that stand-your-ground-style shootings increased 85 percent nationwide after state laws were enacted, but it’s unclear if that trend continued through 2014.

In terms of legal claims in 2014, states that have stand-your-ground laws yielded more instances of charges being filed against the person claiming self-defense than the states that don’t, at a rate of two to one. Eight charges came from a stand-your-ground state, while four were in states with no such laws, with three of those states having a duty to retreat.

Sometimes the details are not crystal clear

The details surrounding individual defensive gun uses are extremely varied. While many cases appear to be clear cut instances of self-defense, a great deal of cases also have an incredible amount of gray area or other details that are taken into consideration by authorities when determining whether the act was justifiable.

Gottlieb said an example of a clear-cut case of self defense would be a situation where someone defends themselves after a person, who otherwise had no business being there, breaks into their home in the middle of the night.

“At that point no one is getting prosecuted,” he said.

However, an incident that has more gray area, Gottlieb said, would be a scenario where someone breaks into the home but then flees from the scene and the homeowner chases the suspect before opening fire.

Sean Maloney, who has been a criminal defense attorney for more than 20 years and started Second Call Defense, specializes in firearm-related law and told Guns.com that regardless of the situation, there’s one question a gun owner must always ask before pulling the trigger.

“Whether you’re in a stand-your-ground state or a non-stand-your-ground state, our initial thoughts are always the same: Am I in fear of immediate, unavoidable, serious bodily injury or death?” Maloney said. “Even in a duty to retreat state, if we can answer yes, then we can use lethal force.”

Everitt also said he believes it is a spectrum when it comes to defensive shootings, and there are many cases with a great deal of questionable information.

“I think some of them are legitimate defenses of home when someone you don’t know, or a criminal, is trying to rob your home and they come while you’re there, either purposely or mistakenly,” Everitt said.

He said sometimes the gray areas emerge when the parties involved are acquainted with one another, and according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, in 55.9 percent of all murders – not just justifiable homicides – the parties involved are acquainted with one another, with nearly one quarter of those involving family members.

The initial reports of what occurred may be somewhat vague, but then it is later discovered that there’s more to the story than originally thought, like a drug deal gone wrong.

“And then you have ones where either are negligent or flat out mistaken,” Everitt added. “There’s been many, many cases where people shot relatives coming in the home thinking they were robbers.”

While the vast majority of defensive gun uses appear to be justified from the beginning stages of the investigation, it is the responsibility of the legal system to essentially sift through all the facts within the case to determine whether the act should be deemed justifiable.

In most states, when a gun is used in self-defense, responding officers and investigators will gather all evidence from the scene and take statements from witnesses and those involved. All the information collected is then forwarded to the prosecuting attorney who reviews the case.

Most of the time, when appropriate, the prosecuting attorney will determine the shooting was justified and the case is closed. However, sometimes the case is presented to a grand jury to determine whether any charges should be filed.

Sometimes this is a relatively quick process, taking only a few days, while other times it may take several years.

A closer look at cases that resulted in charges

Markus Kaarma, the subject of one of the more high profile self-defense claims, was sentenced to 70 years in prison.

Markus Kaarma, the subject of one of the more high profile self-defense claims, was sentenced to 70 years in prison for shooting a man in what he claimed was self-defense scenario. (Photo: Christopher Allen/MTPR.org)

An Orlando man returned to his apartment around noon on Jan. 16, 2014, to find a young man walking around outside. There had been a number of recent burglaries and Claudius Smith was certain the wandering man was responsible.

Smith grabbed his .45-caliber handgun and went to confront the young man, who attempted to walk away before Smith pulled on his sweatshirt in an effort to hold him there so the police could be called. But according to Smith, the suspect, who was later identified as 21-year-old Ricardo Sanes, punched him and reached for his gun.

“Because his pants were falling down,” Smith feared Sanes had a gun and shot him during the confrontation as Sanes reached his hands toward his pockets.

Sanes was pronounced dead at the scene, and police found a .40-caliber handgun tucked inside his pants. Smith, who had pursued Sanes before shooting him, was charged with second-degree murder.

A security alarm at David McLaughlin’s home in Dunkirk, Indiana, was activated around 12:30 a.m. on April 21, 2014. Soon thereafter, McLaughlin discovered 29-year-old David A. Bailey running out of his garage.

McLaughlin, who was armed with a gun, chased Bailey and fired three shots at him as he ran away. McLaughlin later claimed he believed Bailey was reaching toward his waistband, as if to retrieve a weapon, when he opened fire. Bailey was struck once in the arm, but maintains he did not break into McLaughlin’s garage.

Prosecutors in Indiana, which has a stand-your-ground law, charged McLaughlin with criminal recklessness resulting in serious bodily injury, a class D felony, but a judge reduced it to a misdemeanor.

In a high-profile case out of Missoula, Montana, Markus Kaarma was found guilty of deliberate homicide after shooting and killing Diren Dede, a 17-year-old German exchange student who he found breaking into his garage on April 27, 2014.

A jury of his peers determined that Kaarma was the aggressor in the situation when he purposefully lured the teen into the garage before he shot him four times with a shotgun. In the state of Montana, there is a duty to retreat.

Jonas Charles waited at his car dealership in Pompano Beach, Florida, in May 2014 for the return of burglars who had previously stolen over $32,000 worth of property, and around 2 a.m., four teens showed up at the dealership.

 Charles, who was armed with a gun, immediately confronted the teens and opened fire. No one was struck at that time, but the shots sent the teens running.

However, Charles pursued two of the teens, who were unarmed, and eventually cornered them. According to witnesses, the teens had their hands in the air, pleading with Charles not to shoot them when he opened fire for a second time, striking the 15-year-old suspect in the stomach.

The teen survived, but the state of Florida, which is infamous for its stand-your-ground law, charged Charles with attempted murder.

The day gun rights were expanded in Georgia – on July 1, 2014 – an overzealous open carrier confronted a fellow open carrier at a convenience store in Valdosta. Ronald Williams demanded to see the second man’s identification and firearms license, but the second man refused, essentially telling Williams he was not obligated to do so.

But Williams was persistent on seeing the man’s ID and, although he never pointed it at him, pulled his gun from his holster.

The man who was being harassed then paid for his items and left the store. Williams was jailed and charged with disorderly conduct.

Chris Williams was the victim of a burglary at his Yazoo County, Mississippi, home in July 2014. Williams believed he knew at least one of the men who were responsible for the break-in, but when Shannon Blake Kirk came to Williams’ home to explain to him that he was not involved, a confrontation ensued and eventually ended with gunfire.

Kirk was shot four times in the living room of Williams’ home, although Williams claimed he shot Kirk in self-defense after he was assaulted. The state of Mississippi, which has a stand-your-ground law, charged him with murder.

An argument over a parked car in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, prompted both parties involved to brandish firearms, but also landed both parties facing charges.

It was July 11, 2014, when Lanice Perry and some friends came to her apartment and found the driveway blocked by a vehicle belonging to Gabriel Concepcion. When the altercation over the parking began, Concepcion went to his apartment and retrieved a gun, prompting Perry to also go to her apartment and grab a gun.

However, before Perry returned, Concepcion fired a single shot into the ground, and when Perry came back outside, although she didn’t fire, aimed her gun at another individual who was at the scene.

When authorities arrived to the melee, Perry and Concepcion’s weapons were seized and they were both arrested. Perry was charged with felony assault, carrying a weapon while under the influence of alcohol, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Concepcion was charged with firing a weapon in a compact area and disorderly conduct.

Rhode Island does not have a stand-your-ground law and there is a duty to retreat.

Roderick Whipple was charged with murder for the shooting death of David A. Johnson, although he claimed he fired in self-defense.

The two men apparently had ongoing disputes in the past, but according to Whipple, on Aug. 19, 2014, he walked out of his Newark, New Jersey, apartment to see Johnson “charging at him.” Whipple said he attempted to retreat into his apartment to avoid the confrontation, but Johnson followed him and forced his way through Whipple’s door. Whipple, in turn, shot Johnson, who later died at a local hospital.

Prosecutors in New Jersey, which does not have a stand-your-ground law and maintains a duty to retreat, charged Whipple with murder.

In another well-publicized case, Charles Jordan was charged with voluntary manslaughter after he shot and killed who he believed to be an intruder in his Philadelphia home on Sept. 15, 2014.

It wasn’t until after shots were already fired that Jordan discovered the “intruder” was actually his daughter’s boyfriend, Marc Carrion, who she had sneaked into her room.

Pennsylvania also has a stand-your-ground law, but that did not prevent the state from charging Jordan.

Police in Big Spring, Texas, received a call about a stolen truck around 8:20 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2014. James Ketch informed authorities that he was following the truck that had been stolen from a nearby truck stop. While in pursuit, the truck, driven by Bobby Gene Bricker, came to a stop, and at some point before authorities arrived on the scene, Ketch fatally shot Bricker.

Authorities determined the shooting was not justified and Ketch was charged with murder.

Martin Gaytan told authorities he and his wife were arguing at their Spring, Texas, home on Dec. 28, 2014, and that it turned physically violent.

According to Gaytan, his wife, Monica, retrieved a handgun and pointed it at him, but he wrestled it away and then turned the gun on her. But when authorities arrived, Monica was pronounced dead.

Even though he claimed self-defense, Gaytan was charged with murder for the fatal shooting of his wife.

Of the 12 cases that resulted in charges, only one – the Missoula, Montana, case – has been determined to have resulted in a conviction. The Bell Gardens, California, case is still open, and it is unknown if the remaining 10 cases resulted in convictions.

While we certainly are not legal experts at Guns.com, sometimes – though not always – comparing the details of the case with state laws may make it easier to understand why charges were brought against a person who claims they acted in self-defense.

Maloney believes it is of “paramount importance” as a gun owner to have legal representation before it is needed, but even more so, to know the laws of the state in which you live and when the use of lethal force can and cannot be used.

“When we use a firearm in self-defense, and we shoot somebody and they die, that’s a homicide until they prove otherwise,” he said.

And proving justification can be an extremely expensive, exhausting and time-consuming ordeal, Maloney said.