Vigilantism or self-defense?

By Scott Tibbs, December 04, 2007

When a Texas man saw two men breaking into a neighbor's house and killed them, he ignited a national controversy. The 911 tape was played on the Afternoon Edition last week and brought several interesting calls. Few people would question using lethal force to defend one's own home against a robbery, but was he justified in using the same force to defend his neighbor's home?

First, I would argue defending a home is different from defending property. When a criminal breaks into the place where someone lives, he creates a dangerous situation by making an implied threat against the people who live there. There is no way to know if a burglar is planning to act violently if someone is in the home, and there have been cases where people came home, surprised a burglar, and were murdered.

Some argue that Joe Horn should have waited for the police, but the simple fact is that the police cannot be expected to stop every crime. They are a deterrent force and can respond to some crimes, but the vast majority of crimes will happen away from the police. This is why the right to use force in self defense or in defense of others is so critical. Ultimately, we are all individually responsible for our own safety.

Was Horn acting as a vigilante? He was not taking the law into his own hands and punishing the two men for robbing his neighbor's home. Had Horn pursued the men and killed them at a later time, it would be justifiable to harshly punish him for what he did. What he was doing, however, was intervening in a robbery in progress and defending his neighbor's home and possessions. I do not think you can classify Horn as a "vigilante" in the same way someone who takes revenge after the fact is a vigilante.

From a public policy perspective, Horn's actions are beneficial in creating fear in criminals. If criminals have reason to fear neighbors in addition to someone who might be in the home, it provides a deterrent for future criminal activity. Furthermore, the men who Horn killed might have been planning future burglaries in the neighborhood, and the next victim might not be lucky enough to be gone when they arrive. What would happen then?

Ultimately, the main villains of this story are Miguel DeJesus and Diego Ortiz, who created the situation by robbing an elderly man's home. Had these two pieces of human debris not decided to victimize someone for their own personal gain, they would still be alive today. I have no sympathy whatsoever for these two, and the world is a better place with them taking a permanent dirt nap.

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