Joe Horn, The Fourth of July, and Forgotten Duties

On November 14 of 2007, Pasadena resident Joe Horn called 911 because two men were breaking into his neighbor’s house. As time progressed and the police had not arrived, Horn became increasingly angry and worried as time progressed and the police did not arrive, angry that the burglars would get away and worried that just sitting in his house doing nothing might make him a target. Finally, against repeated urging from the 911 operator (who is not, just to be clear, a police officer or authorized to issue commands to the public) to stay in his home, Horn left his house, got his shotgun from his car, and when the two burglars, Diego Ortiz and Miguel de Jesus, emerged from the neighbor’s house, Horn accosted them, they entered his yard, and Horn shot both men to death. This past week, a grand jury declined to press charges against Mr. Horn.

I was uncomfortable with the story initially, because a number of points were unclear. Horn had threatened to kill the burglars while on the phone with the 911 operator, yet he had also expressed fear for his own safety. Which one was the larger motive in getting his gun? One of the men he shot was shot in the back and the other in the side, yet a police officer who witnessed the shooting testified the two men came from the neighbor’s yard onto Mr. Horn’s yard. I am a strong proponent of defending your home and family, but a bit less sure about shooting someone just because you think they will get away with a crime.

But as I thought about it, I began to recognize significant points, the first of which is that I was not there. That is, the facts are relayed from Mr. Horn, the police, any witnesses, and the forensic data, and worse, they are filtered through a biased media. More than one media company chose to presented only edited versions of Horn’s 911 communication, even though full unedited versions were released by the police. Almost any position taken by someone hearing the story will be biased by his or her preconceived opinion.

I also realized that the people attacking Mister Horn were, unintentionally, explaining why he had every right to do as he did. A lot of folks were saying that everything would have been just fine if Mr. Horn had just stayed in his house and not confronted the burglars. Think about that. A homeowner who has the right to go where he wants on his property is being told to ignore a crime going on right next to him, to not look at the criminals so he can report to the authorities, to not try to stop the crooks who are committing a crime right there, to basically just sit there and hide like a trapped animal.

– continued –

There is something fundamentally wrong, something clearly evil, about suggesting that criminals should not be hindered, while honest folk should be told to hide out of the way and do nothing. That attitude can explain a lot of why crime is so bad in places; if crooks have the run of things and the honest folk run away and do not confront them, do not witness their crimes and report detailed descriptions, and the rights of citizens are degraded while thugs are emboldened, then no good can possibly come of it.

The next claim was that the police can handle crime, and doing anything to confront a criminal would just get in their way. That’s wrong on at least two levels. First, while I have great respect and appreciation for police officers in general and for many specific individuals I know, it has to be said that the pathetic track record of the police in solving – let alone preventing crime should be considered in this incident. Not to be cynical, but the police – at their best – react to events and may catch criminals at some point in the future, In the mean time, criminals continue to plague innocent victims, and have learned that the police are no real threat unless they are caught in the act. In my own experience, I have been robbed three times at gunpoint, my wheels were stolen off my car in 2003, my whole car was stolen in 2005, and an angry neighbor once smashed a side window of my car. In none of those cases did the police ever catch the crooks. In the case of the angry neighbor, the guy left a note explaining why he smashed my window – he said I was parked ‘in his space’ (in a lot with no assigned spaces), yet the police refused to arrest him, saying they ‘had no real evidence’. In the case of my stolen car, the car turned up three weeks later shot full of bullet holes – it had apparently been used in a robbery attempt, yet the police made no attempt to collect evidence from it, such as fingerprints or pieces of bullet, etc. The simple fact is that very few crimes matter to police the way they do to the victim. The second point, is that legal experts will tell you that in terms of the law, the police are not actually required to protect you. They work for the government, and have no specific directive whatsoever to protect you. Not that they could, though – even if you were on the phone to 911 when someone breaks into your house, the police could not possibly get to your house before the criminals could kill you. The operative lesson here, is that the only real defense is self-defense. And that, speaking bluntly, means having access to deadly force and the will to use it, if necessary.

Some folks will get mad at that. Such people were quick to blame Mr. Horn for, in their opinion, acting as judge, jury, and executioner. But they are wrong in such claims. Folks need to understand that an ordinary citizen is not a law officer or a court. That puts limits on what they may do, but it also means they are not limited in the way a court is. If I have a gun and am attacked, I do not have to do anything about the ‘rights’ of the criminal, I do not have to consider legal procedures when dealing with a crime happening right in front of me. Criminals deserve no advantage or privilege, and if a homeowner shoots a burglar, only the most perverse interpretation of law or civil rights could pretend that the homeowner is culpable.

This all started because two criminals forgot that a homeowner with a gun is not held to the same conditions as a man with a badge, that a neighbor is not required to just hide in his home while crooks do as they please – some might even argue that a good neighbor has the moral responsibility to get involved.

Some folks have, rather hysterically, called Mr. Horn a racist, simply because the men he killed were Hispanic while he was white. But that is an absurd notion on its face. The 911 call made no reference to race whatsoever; Mr. Horn was reacting to a break-in of his neighbor’s house, not the appearance of the criminals. The tape gives no reason to think that Mr. Horn knew what race the men were until he confronted them. Also, the tape shows that three seconds elapsed from when Horn warned “move and you’re dead” to when he first fired. An undercover police officer who witnessed the shootings told the grand jury that the men approached Horn, entering his yard in the process. That they turned when he started shooting does not in any way change the character of their behavior or Horn’s right to use force.

I should also note the character of the decedents. Diego Ortiz and Miguel de Jesus were illegal aliens from Colombia, and suspected in a number of burglaries. De Jesus was on parole when he died while attempting another burglary. These were not upstanding citizens, and while the death of anyone is a serious concern, it is impossible for any rational person to consider either of the two to be innocent victims in this matter.

So what does all this have to do with the Fourth of July? What do I mean by saying there are forgotten duties? It comes down to the character of our nation, even our identity. Time was, that Americans understood that we cannot depend on others for our own safety, that sometimes we have to do something difficult, even unpleasant, in order to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. We carry rights and with them comes responsibility. Those rights in the first Ten Amendments, they are meant to be used, and for the welfare of our nation. It’s not about just your own house and your own interests, but your neighor’s place and your community. It’s about standing for more than just a slogan, being willing to do the heavy lifting, to take on the inconvenient chores to make things better for everyone. We all know this at some level, we all teach our kids to be responsible and to think of others. We teach our children to learn and use good judgment, and exercising that judgment shows in a lifetime of decisions and consequences. Sometimes those consequences are hard, as Mr. Horn has learned. And sometimes we have to stand against a tide of slackers, of the lazy or even the thuggish, to protect everything we know to be good against its dissolution. Fortunately, violence is rarely necessary to address this duty. We serve it in many ways, from work to civic responsibility, to community activity and faith life. But we all have work to do. Our country needs us, and no excuse will do.

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