It was a 911 call much like the one George Zimmerman dialed in Sanford, Florida, in February—the voice of a defiant man—that announced to the world, back in 2007, that Texas had become a “Stand Your Ground” state, where killing a person is justifiable if you can claim you were afraid.
In November 2007, two months after Texas’ new “castle doctrine” law took effect, a 61-year-old retiree named Joe Horn called to report a pair of burglars in the home next to his.
“I’ve got a shotgun,” Horn told the dispatcher straightaway. “Do you want me to stop them?”
“Nope, don’t do that,” the dispatcher replied. “No property worth shootin’ somebody over, OK?”
Horn stayed on the line for minutes, waiting for the police to arrive, telling the dispatcher how disgusted he was, how scary it was to know burglars were at work in his neighborhood.
It’s not that he wanted to shoot the intruders next door, he said, “but if I go out there to see what the hell’s going on, what choice am I going to have?” The dispatcher told him again to wait for the police, not to go outside with his shotgun, that nobody needed to die for stealing.
Horn was unconvinced. “The laws have been changed…since September the first, and I have a right to protect myself,” Horn said. “I ain’t gonna let them get away with this shit. I’m sorry, this ain’t right, buddy … They got a bag of loot … Here it goes buddy, you hear the shotgun clicking and I’m going.”
“Move, you’re dead,” he told the men, then he fired three times, killing both men, and returned to the phone in his house.
“I had no choice, they came in the front yard with me, man, I had no choice,” he told the dispatcher. Police arrived seconds later. Horn wasn’t arrested, nor was he indicted by a grand jury that later considered the case.
“In Texas, a person has a right to use deadly force in certain circumstances to protect property … and that’s basically what the grand jurors had to deal with,” Harris County District Attorney Ken Magidson said at the time. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth—the San Antonio Republican who beat out House members Joe Driver and Debbie Riddle for the privilege of carrying the castle doctrine bill in the Legislature—suggested the law didn’t apply in the Horn case because, as he told the Houston Chronicle, it “wasn’t his castle” Horn was protecting.
Horn became a right-wing hero and, because the men he shot were Colombians in the U.S. illegally, the story became one about illegal immigration and so-called sanctuary cities like Houston. At a 2009 tea party rally at the Alamo, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck introduced Horn before a cheering crowd. “I’m a Texan,” Horn began. “I love it. I can’t help it. I thought what I thought was the right thing to do, and I did it. It’s unfortunate that it turned out the way that it did, but that’s just the way that it is.”
Now, in the wake of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, some Texas lawmakers are planning to roll back the state’s castle doctrine—either to repeal it altogether, or to discourage armed homeowners from enthusiastically greeting strangers with the barrel of a gun.
In the last few years there have been plenty of questionable castle-defense shootings in Texas indicative of the kind of shoot-first culture:
- In 2010, James Arlie Knight III in Texarkana allegedly shot a 15-year-old African-American boy who’d been hiding from a bully on Knight’s porch. Knight, a 60-year-old white man, later told police he’d heard a bang on his door in the middle of the night, so “his adrenaline and nerves went up,” according to the Texarkana Gazette.
The boy told police he’d asked Knight to call the police for him, but that Knight stood over him with a laser-sighted pistol pointed at him, said, “I’m about to kill you,” and kicked him in the face. Knight then apparently shot the boy twice in the back. The boy survived, with a lacerated kidney and liver, and two wounds in his back. It took more than two years, but Knight was charged with aggravated assault last month.
- James Green, 29, rang the doorbell at what he thought was a friend’s house in late December 2011. It was 3:30 in the morning, and the doorbell woke up a woman who’d just bought the house and was inside alone. She called her husband, who was out of town, who suggested she get their gun, call 911 and check it out.
She called 911, but before police arrived Green let himself through a back door and into the house, where the woman shot and killed him. She won’t face any charges for the shooting. “It’s really an unfortunate accident it wasn’t an intruder,” one of the woman’s neighbors told CBS 11.
- Enrique Recio III, a 23-year-old Texas State University student wrecked his car in a northwest Austin neighborhood around 3 a.m. in early February.
Fred Yazdi, 47, found Recio hiding under his wife’s car in their driveway. “If you flee, I’m going to shoot you,” Yazdi said, according to police, and when Recio tried to run Yazdi shot him three times.
Now Yazdi is facing murder charges in WIlliamson County, but District Attorney John Bradley has said the grand jury will have to consider the case in light of Texas’ castle doctrine protections.
One of Yazdi’s neighbors told the Austin TV station KVUE that she wasn’t too surprised by what happened. “He said he wouldn’t hesitate (to shoot) if somebody was on his property,” she told the station. “It was just a matter of time.”
On his blog, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he will file a bill to repeal Texas’ Castle Doctrine law, calling it unnecessary and saying it’s only led to more violence. Last month, the American Legislative Exchange Council abandoned its push to spread “stand your ground” legislation across the country, after providing model bill language to Texas andmore than a dozen states,
Sen. Royce West announced at a South Dallas rally for Trayvon Martin that he’d file a bill named for the slain Florida teen—not to repeal the 2007 law, but to limit its use.
“Repeal is a tough sell,” says West’s spokesman Kelvin Bass, so West’s office asked police how they’d like to see the law change. That’s how they came up with the proposals: send all deadly force cases to a grand jury, collect the murder weapon at the scene, no matter what, and revoke the shooter’s concealed carry permit while the case is investigated. “It’s an approach that’s consistent with law enforcement practices,” he says.
West laid out his hopes for the law in a statement in early April: “When tensions escalate and situations turn fatally tragic, we should have a thoughtful, consistent and thorough procedure in place to examine the incident in question.”
In Texas, even that could be a tough sell.