Incident Analysis: Neighbor vs. Carjacker

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Your neighbor has just been thrown out of her car by a carjacker — and he’s about to drive off! What’s the right response?

Last August a Phoenix, AZ woman was pulling into her driveway when she was approached by a male who asked to use her phone. Still in the driver’s seat, she said no. That’s when the suspect opened the car door, pulled her from the car and threw her to the ground.

The suspect got into the car and was, apparently, about to drive away when the victim’s neighbors — a husband and wife — came into the scene. They’d seen the man walk up to the car and felt there was something wrong, so they ran over to see if they could assist.

The wife went to the passenger door and opened it, at which point the suspect decided to make his getaway. As he pulled out of the driveway the open door struck the wife, knocking her to the ground. The husband at that point opened fire on the car; it was found, wrecked and with the suspect inside, some ways from the scene. The suspect had been struck by a bullet and later died of his injuries (whether from the bullet or the accident wasn’t made clear.)

You can (and should) read the news account of the event here.

This is an interesting case because there are really two incidents to study. Assuming, of course, that everything happened the way the news story said it did there are several things that we might learn from each of them.

In the first incident, the request to use the phone was a distraction ploy. In this day and age people don’t walk up to strangers in a residential neighborhood and ask to use a phone. Even welfare recipients have cell phones these days, and anyone walking up to you (whether in or out of your car) should automatically be suspect.

Pulling into your driveway puts you in a transition zone; that is, a place where you’ll be leaving one relatively secure environment (your car) for another (your house.) This isn’t to say that either a car or a house is impregnable, but the space and time between them, when you’re out in the open, is far less secure than either. To make that transition the victim had to defeat the security of her car (by unlocking the doors) before she could get into the house. The transition, starting from the point at which the doors on the car are unlocked and ending when the door to the house is locked, is where a savvy criminal is most likely to strike.

The transition is where you need to be paying complete attention to your surroundings and be prepared to react to anything out of the ordinary. A distraction ploy, particularly one when you’re in that transition, is a clear sign of an imminent attack.

How do you stay safe in this kind of transition? The best course of action is to look around your immediate environment and search for potential threats. Seeing someone walking up to your car should cause you to postpone your exit, re-lock the doors, and keep the keys in the ignition. Roll the window down only enough to allow you to tell the suspect that he can’t use your phone, and if he persists drive away. The car is not only a good weapon, it’s also a good escape pod. Use it if you feel threatened, and then call police. Driveways have long been favorite areas for criminals, either attacking as the victim gets out of the car (as in this case), or just as the victim enters her home (before the door gets shut and locked.)

Luckily the victim wasn’t injured and would have only lost a vehicle. That may not be trivial, especially for someone on a limited income, but it’s a darn sight better than losing a life!

The second incident starts at the point the victim hits the ground and the suspect gets into the car to steal it. Remember that the wife went to the passenger side door and opened it — presumably to talk to the thief, who then accelerated out of the driveway knocking her to the ground.

Think about this: you’ve just seen someone who you don’t know throw your neighbor out of her car; why on earth would you open the door to that car? What good could you possibly do after the fact and from the opposite side of the vehicle — give him a stern lecture? That was not a smart move, as there was likely little to gain from any interaction. It would have been better to simply let the thief take the car, attend to the victim, and call the police.

That, unfortunately, leads us to the actions of the husband. Seeing his wife toppled by the retreating vehicle, he fired at the car and struck the suspect. This resulted in the suspect’s death, either from the gunshot itself or for injuries sustained in the subsequent accident.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. I don’t like thieves, you don’t like thieves, even other thieves don’t like thieves. Yes, the world is probably better off without someone who would strong-arm an elderly woman. None of that changes that fact that there was no reason, as far as I can tell from the news report, for the husband to have shot at the car. It was effecting a getaway, the two women were relatively unscathed, and the suspect was at that time not presenting a lethal threat to the husband or the two women.

Shooting at a fleeing suspect is virtually never legally defensible nor tactically sound. This was a simple property crime, made a little more complex because of the wife’s involvement but still a property crime. There doesn’t seem to have been any of the widely acknowledged justifications for the use of lethal force in this case.

The takeaway is that a firearm is a lethal force tool, to be used only when lethal force is justified due to the actions of another. In this case I don’t see any such justification. I haven’t been able to find out if the husband has been charged in the death of the suspect, but my understanding of the laws regarding the use of lethal force suggests that he most certainly could be.

If you’ve never studied the legal concepts surrounding the use of lethal force, that’s a deficiency you should rectify immediately! I can suggest a book that will give you the background you need: Massad Ayoob’s book “Deadly Force”. It covers the information you need to make good decisions when you’re faced with an attacker!

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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