The Public Policy

Like a Good Neighbor

Joe Horn was there.

By 7.9.08

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My father's father, Aaron Homnick (1893-1969), was a graduate of Columbia University School of Pharmacy who ran a storefront apothecary in New York City. That type of operation has now been mostly supplanted by Walgreens, CVS, and Wal-Mart. Back then his biggest problem was armed robbery. Periodically, all too often, he would find himself facing a your-money-or-your-life holdup man and he would hand over the strongbox. One such bandit put the gun back in his pocket and left the store holding the box in both hands. Grandpa jumped him from behind and wrestled him to the sidewalk.

Neighbors were sitting out on their stoops but none of them made a move to assist. After the event, Aaron looked around at the faces of the apathetic bystanders. All of them had been his customers -- patients to his mind -- over the years. He had helped them through their illnesses, often steering them to the appropriate medication when they could not afford a doctor. When they didn't care enough to jump into the fray, his heart was broken. He closed his shop, leaving his professional field to work for a brother-in-law in the clothing business.

Last week, Joe Horn, in a suburb of Houston, Texas, stood before a grand jury, charged with gunning down two men who were ransacking his neighbor's home. These peers peered peerlessly at the defendant and almost certainly thought: "How can I get this guy to buy the house next door to mine?" They refused to return the indictment and Mister Horn is walking free. For now anyway; liberals are feverishly working to secure new charges, perhaps Federal. (Incidentally, the suburb is named Pasadena, giving us a variation on the famous used-car salesman claiming that the previous owner was a little old lady from Pasadena who only drove it Sunday morning to church. How about a used shotgun from a little old man in Pasadena?)

Fast forward to the weekend of the Fourth in Hialeah, a mostly Cuban suburb of Miami. A homeowner surprised two rascals in a burglarious escapade through his premises. He greeted them with open arms, killing one and laying the other out for the police with an immobilizing wound. No charges are being preferred at this time, a preference that most locals here find preferable. One thing is for sure: the talk shows are buzzing with populist debate, with a range of angry citizens on both sides. "He is a killer," cry some. "He should have killed the other guy, too," cry some.

All of this activity has followed closely on the heels of the recent Supreme Court decision in Heller, said to support the right of the individual to bear arms in defense of his homestead. That is helpful in a broader way, but the limits on the right to pull the trigger are generally negotiated in State legislation. As we have seen, the law is likelier to grant that privilege to a person defending his own home over one-stepping in to support his neighbor.

This is not a new subject. In Talmudic law, there is an obligation to save a neighbor from bodily harm by killing the attacker, but only if a shot to a non-vital organ would not eliminate the danger. This is derived from the verse in the Bible: "Do not stand by the blood of your friend." Additionally, there is a right to kill a home invader, seen in this verse: "If the burglar is discovered in his tunnel, he has no blood..." Some authorities believe that since the second right does not include a specific clause to try to stop by injury if possible, this implies that the principle of self-defense allows the homeowner always to shoot to kill.

Another story from my grandfather applies here, one I heard him tell more than once. He had a competitor who mocked him for not keeping a gun on hand. "If I ever get robbed," the fellow promised, "I will shoot once in the air. If they don't drop their weapons, then I will shoot to kill." The man came to a sad end: robbers showed up, he shot into the air, and they shot into his body.

(Tangentially, I once heard a Jewish scholar identify a pattern of dispute among traditional commentators. Every time a particular circumstance is not covered explicitly, some assume that it must not be prohibited. Others will infer that it must be subsumed under the stated prohibition in the parallel case. This observation can be applied to Supreme Court jurisprudence as well.)

Similarly, area laws tend to give less leeway to the third party stepping in to help than they do to the potential victim himself. Outsiders theoretically have less at stake; they also have less information, increasing the potential for a tragic misunderstanding. My personal sense is that even if the law on the books tends to the cautious, if a Joe Horn stands up to use his arms for his neighbors, the grand jury is right to sit on its hands.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.