Defending Property Or Defending Yourself? It’s A Blurry Line People Often Get Wrong.

Winnetka car theft shootout
Courtesy ABC7 Chicago

A recent story of a shootout in a wealthy north shore Chicago suburb demonstrates that deciding whether someone is defending their property or defending themselves can be complicated.

According to the video, neighbors in Winnetka thought they were hearing fireworks, but what they were actually hearing was a gun battle between a homeowner and several thieves who had been trying to steal cars. The man defending his home said he, “did what had to be done,” but wisely didn’t want to do an interview. Pro tip: NEVER talk to the media after a defensive gun use.

What led him to needing to do what had to be done? A little before 5:00 a.m., he heard his own car starting. He ran outside, taking his gun along for self defense, and yelled at the thieves to stop. Instead of running away, one of the thieves opened fire on him, so he took cover behind a large tree and returned fire.

Before it was all over, there were dozens of pieces of brass littering the ground.

Later, the defender figured out that the thieves had broken into his home to get his keys while he and his five daughters were sleeping.

A Common Misconception

As often happens, the media found someone nearby who was more than willing to run their mouth in front of a camera…a nosy neighbor with ill-informed opinions about the use of force.

Winnetka stolen car shootout neighbor
Courtesy ABC7 Chicago

“I was surprised that somebody would fire a gun, and it does make me a little bit concerned,” the neighbor told ABC 7 Chicago. “Definitely not something I would want to walk into or be anywhere near. But I never would expect it. This is very unexpected. I would probably just let them take the car and worry about it later.”

While we can’t fault the neighbor for being unfamiliar with use of force laws, we can apply a bit of common sense. While he’s not saying it directly, the basic issue the neighbor seems to have with the shootout is that he thinks his the victim here was defending his cars. The neighbor thinks it’s probably safer all around to let the police and the insurance company deal with it.

On the surface, that sounds very sensible. I recommend not pulling a gun out to defend property, as actually using deadly force to protect a car is either illegal (in most jurisdictions) or can put you on very iffy legal ground in the aftermath. Given that a lawyer takes your money in the event of a defensive gun use and an insurance company sends you money after a theft, it makes sense to avoid the need for a lawyer at every opportunity.

But surface appearances can be deceiving. It’s perfectly reasonable to investigate strange sounds on your own property and it makes sense to take a gun along for your own protection while doing it. By the time the man in this case was firing his own gun, someone else was already shooting at him.

So, in the end, the victim here was protecting himself, not his vehicles. He fired to protect his own life and potentially the lives of his daughters.

Don’t take this as a how-to for abusing use of force laws, though. Going out and putting yourself in a position where you’d likely need to use deadly force so you can have an excuse to shoot someone over property is a recipe for disaster. There’s a very good chance that a prosecutor, judge and a jury to see through that.

It’s also a good idea to try to educate the public about the distinction. When the average idiot (the neighbor, in this case) thinks this way, it’s easy for legitimate self-defense to be seen as someone looking for a chance to shoot someone. And people like the neighbor in this case are the exactly the types who end up on juries.

9 Responses

  1. If you’re rich enough to gaf, build a garage for your vehicles. Many houses do have garages, but people would rather store their crap in the garage and leave their valuable and needed vehicle outside. Makes perfect sense.


    If you live in an apartment or don’t have a garage, let the insurance company and the cops handle it.

    ” It’s perfectly reasonable to investigate strange sounds on your own property….”

    That’s what windows are for. The only reason I’m going to go outside to investigate strange sounds on my property, is if I see someone setting my house on fire. If you hear strange sounds, get your family into your planned safe room. You do have a plan, don’t you??

    As for the location of this incident, if you live within an hour of Chicago, you really need to think about your priorities in life. I know it’s a faux pas to mention this, but the resident population is not amenable to law and order. Also, there is no fence or gates on this property, and seemingly no reinforced door on the house. I live in the boonies and I have a fence, a gated driveway, and all my doors are covered with reinforced steel screen doors. Likewise, at night and when I’m gone for more than 24 hours, I engage a simple sliding bolt on the garage door to keep the nefarious from opening it by disengaging my garage door opener by pushing a rod above the garage door.

    It ain’t the early 2000s anymore. WTFU.

    1. The main reason I have installed these precautions is, if some whack job does manage to enter my house and threaten me and mine, and I blow him away with my 12 gauge, my lawyer (you do have one on retainer with a suitable service like Lawshield or USCCA, right?) can point to these precautions and say the perp was determined enough to break in and was not deterred by reasonable safeguards, so my legal standing for self defense is a little more secure.

      1. Typically engage the garage bolt before bed and don’t even have Albany let alone Chicago levels of nonsense to deal with. Then again I know the local meth heads to watch for.

    2. “If you’re rich enough to gaf,…”

      WTF is a ‘gaf’?

  2. ” I recommend not pulling a gun out to defend property, as actually using deadly force to protect a car is either illegal (in most jurisdictions) or can put you on very iffy legal ground in the aftermath.”

    *Know your local laws.*

    About 20 years back, a 15 year-old thought breaking into cars late at night was a good idea. Until he discovered wrong, that is.

    The homeowner woke up late one night to hear someone breaking into his car. The car in question was under a carport where the roof was physically-connected to his dwelling.

    Under Florida law, any structure attached to your dwelling is considered the exact same as if it was under your home’s roof. The armed homeowner confronted the thief who made a move towards him. Big mistake, the homeowner opened fire on the teenage thief with lethal results.

    Homeowner was righteously no-billed as a result.

    Know. Your. Local. Laws…

  3. The GENERAL rule about “use of deadly force” (the details are very ‘nuanced’, and different in every state) is that you can’t use ‘deadly force’ unless you are “reasonably in fear of death or serious injury, to yourself or your family” (the breadth of that last phrase varies a lot). Sounds easy, dunnit?

    What is “reasonable” fear? If you see a person attempting (as you interpret your sensory input) to break into your house (already a crime, and a felony in most states), are you “reasonably” in fear that the (already criminal) person would engage in violence after they manage to break in? A normal, rational person would think so, but states, and different juries, disagree. California, as just one example, has a specific ‘duty to retreat’ law – you can’t claim self-defense if you could have escaped (and left your property and/or family to the tender ministrations of the already-lawbreaker?).

    I really think a smart politician should propose a law, akin to the UCC, designed as a template for states to adopt, that laid out a clear standard for what was reasonable, and who and what you were allowed to defend. All this should be a matter of common sense, but . . . common sense does not appear to be in use in our justice system.

    On the other hand, we each have to make a moral and ethical judgement, and then look at ourselves in the mirror the next morning. Personally, I’ve already made my decision, and I realize it may not comport with any particular state’s idea of what ‘self-defense’ is, and I am fully prepared to accept the consequences. If you break into my house at night, or break into my car on my driveway? The old line ‘Don’t start none, won’t be none’ comes to mind. Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.

    Be aware of the law (in your area), and take it into your calculations when you evaluate when and how to act, but . . . at the end, use your damn common sense. What was that old line from “Dirty Harry”, “When a naked man is chasing a woman through a dark alley with a butcher knife and a hard on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” Would that the American ‘justice system’ would adopt that level of common sense.

  4. “I recommend not pulling a gun out to defend property, as actually using deadly force to protect a car …”

    Well, ya see it was this way. It was 2AM and I still could not get to sleep so I decided to get up and go get something to eat. I went to the car in the drive way and was surprised by this guy who jumped out from behind the car and said he would kill me. I had to shoot him or he would have killed me. I called 911 right after it happened, unfortunately paramedics did not arrive until after he died.

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