Calvin Trillin offers a gripping account of the killing of Steven Holt and the wounding of Tanner Brunson by Sam Bonilla in Liberal, Kansas.
Brunson and Holt, both drunk were driving a converted Chevy Blazer down a dry streambed where Bonilla was walking with his son, nephew, and dog. They weren’t yielding the right of way to pedestrians, and Bonilla – who claims he had to jump aside to avoid being run down – yelled at the two and gave them the finger. Brunson, driving, pulled over, and he and Holt, both beefy, got out and approached Bonilla, a slightly built 40-year-old green card holder from Mexico with a steady employment history and no criminal record. After brandishing a .22 revolver and shouting at them to “Get back!” – but without himself retreating – Bonilla put one shot into Holt’s heart and two into Brunson; one of the shots hit Brunson in the back, suggesting that he had started to retreat. Charged with murder, Bonilla pleaded down to aggravated assault; after he does six years in prison, he’ll be deported.
The way Trillin tells the story, Bonilla had a very good claim of self-defense, at least with respect to Holt. Brunson, shot in the back, is a harder case, but there seems to be no question that the physical altercation was initiated by the good old boys; they had the option of driving on, or of backing off once Bonilla brandished the gun. But facing a potential eighteen-year sentence and a trial before a jury likely to be all-Anglo, perhaps he made a prudent calculation. (Or perhaps Trillin’s account doesn’t reflect the case that could have been made against him.)
The case raises a number of questions. Trillin asks one of them: if Bonilla’s name had been Bronson and the two men shot had been Latino, would the shooter have been charged with a crime?
But there are more:
1. If Bonilla had escaped incarceration, would he told a survey researcher that he’d engaged in a “defensive gun use”? Almost certainly.
2. If Bonilla had been unarmed, would he have refrained from the obscene gesture? Maybe.
3. If the law provides no duty to retreat, does that make it more likely that neither side in a confrontation will back off before blood is shed? Again, almost certainly.
The people who romanticize armed self-defense ought to think about this case long and hard.