(NEW YORK) — As a Texas grand jury weighs whether to charge an armed civilian in the fatal shooting this month of an alleged robber inside a Texas taqueria, the case has cast a spotlight on people taking the law into their own hands.
A combination of a proliferation of guns, “stand your ground” states, concealed carry permit holders and a growing lack of confidence in police to protect communities appear to be fueling a spike in incidents of U.S. citizens intervening in what they perceive to be crime, law enforcement experts told ABC News.
In addition to the taqueria robbery shooting, the episodes over the past month include a man fatally shot by an alleged car burglar he confronted in New Mexico and a Missouri woman charged with murder for allegedly killing a man she caught riding in her stolen car and shooting two innocent bystanders. A Washington, D.C., homeowner who killed an unarmed 13-year-old boy he suspected of breaking into vehicles has also prompted calls for his arrest by community activists.
“The perception that you cannot rely on law enforcement to prevent crimes, resolve crime, in a way that they used to, I think that does play a big part,” T. Markus Funk, a former Illinois federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Boulder Law School, told ABC News.
Lack of solid data
Statistics on such incidents are scarce with no centralized federal or local law enforcement agency keeping track. The lack of solid data makes it difficult to determine if there has been an increase in civilians intervening in crimes, experts said.
FBI data shows the number of homicides by civilians classified as justifiable has increased annually from 286 in 2014 to 386 in 2019. The FBI’s annual crime statistics, however, lack details of the circumstances involved in each incident other than reporting guns were used in the vast majority of them.
“It’s hard to really determine whether it’s going up, whether this as an issue that is actually getting worse or if it’s being reported more, or if it’s the result of something like the access to weapons, especially illegal ones,” Keith Taylor, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York Police Department officer, told ABC News.
Anecdotally, Taylor and Funk said it appears that more civilians are taking matters into their own hands rather than relying on police to solve crimes.
In several recent incidents in New Jersey, civilian groups have taken it upon themselves to conduct vigilante sting operations to catch child sex predators by posing as minors in internet chat rooms. Prosecutors said the vigilante groups have recorded YouTube videos of them confronting alleged child predators when they show up at prearranged rendezvous before calling the police, officials said.
The Bergen County, New Jersey, Prosecutor’s Office released a statement in December discouraging such vigilante activity.
“Bergen County law enforcement strongly discourages this activity, which holds the potential for violence and injury to the individuals involved as well as innocent bystanders,” the statement reads. “It also jeopardizes the due process rights of potential targets, puts private citizens in danger, and risks involving law enforcement in illegal activity.”
Gun ownership skyrockets
Adding to the dangers of such confrontations is the proliferation of armed civilians, law enforcement experts said.
Politicians pandering for votes and gun-rights groups have also helped prompt the surge in gun ownership by fanning the perception that crime nationwide is running rampant and using the Second Amendment to “push this narrative of the necessity of more individual gun ownership,” Taylor said.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of concealed handgun permits issued nationwide has skyrocketed to more than 22 million, a 48% increase since 2016, according to studies by the Crime Prevention Research Center. In 2022, concealed gun permit holders grew by about 488,000, up 2.3% from 2021, the studies show.
In addition to the jump in concealed handgun permits, the number of states adopting some type of “stand your ground” self-defense laws have increased to 38 in 2023 from 24 in 2012.
“If individuals feel that their local government, their local public safety entities are unable to do the job of sufficiently protecting them, then this idea of taking matters into your own hands becomes more palatable,” Taylor said. “The general public may not understand that when an individual decides to take action as a vigilante, the police may think that person is the shooter and kill them.”
In June 2021, a 40-year-old man fatally shot an armed suspect who gunned down a police officer in downtown Arvada, Colorado, according to the Arvada Police Department. A police officer responding to the incident fatally shot the good Samaritan when he saw him holding the cop killer’s AR-15 rifle, officials said.
String of recent incidents
Recent incidents that have ended in either a good Samaritan being killed or ending up charged after intervening in perceived crimes, include:
• The Jan. 5 shooting at The Ranchito #4 taqueria in southwest Houston, where surveillance video captured a 46-year-old diner shooting an alleged masked robber nine times, killing him. The alleged perpetrator turned out to be carrying a toy gun. The armed diner, who returned the stolen money to victimized patrons before leaving the scene, was later interviewed by police and prosecutors referred the case to a Harris County grand jury to decide if charges should be filed against the diner. The diner’s attorney released a statement saying his client “feared for his life” and under Texas law was justified in using lethal force.
• On Jan. 6, a 30-year-old man was shot to death in Las Cruces, New Mexico, after he confronted a 19-year-old man “he had reason to believe … was burglarizing vehicles earlier that morning at a nearby Walmart Superstore,” according to police. The encounter escalated into a physical confrontation that ended with the victim being fatally shot, police said. The suspect was arrested and charged with felony voluntary manslaughter.
• On Jan. 7, a Washington, D.C., homeowner fatally shot an unarmed 13-year-old boy he suspected of breaking into cars in his neighborhood at 4 a.m. The shooting prompted community activists to call on prosecutors to file homicide charges against the homeowner, who has not been publicly identified.
• On Dec. 22, a 35-year-old armed woman tracked her stolen car to a gas station in suburban St. Louis and fatally shot a 19-year-old man she found inside the vehicle and a 49-year-old man outside the vehicle, who police said was an innocent bystander. A second innocent bystander was shot in the incident and survived, according to police. The woman was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony assault, police said.
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