Armed self defense and the law

Henry Bonilla enaged in a “defensive gun use.” He’ll do six years for it. Had he been unarmed, might he have been less eager to provoke a confrontation?

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

23 thoughts on “Armed self defense and the law”

  1. I don't have a New Yorker subscription, so I'm asking — is there anything other than the location of the shot to suggest Brunson might have been retreating? I don't know — I'm asking out of ignorance — but I'm thinking that a body hit by a bullet while walking might well rotate, presenting a different surface to a subsequent bullet.

  2. The only thing wrong with this case is the verdict. There is no moral grounds for Bonilla to be convicted.

    By driving recklessly, Brunson and Holt had demonstrated a depraved indifference to causing harm. Assailants who have demonstrated a depraved indifference to harming others with a vehicle are highly unlikely to have any reservations to causing harm with their fists. Bonilla had every reason to expect violence when the assailants exited their vehicle and had every moral justification to kill them where they stood.

    The fact that Bonilla called out Brunson and Holt on their dangerous behavior is irrelevant. Adults are expected–both by law and social custom–not to escalate verbal or gestural challenges into violence. A person who responds to an verbal or gestural insult with violence is entirely responsible for the consequences should their victim defend themselves.

    There is no moral ambiguity. Brunson and Holt engaged in reckless behavior that endangered others and chose to respond to non-violent criticism with–at minimum–physical intimidation. This is not acceptable behavior. Bonilla had every reason to fear assault as he had already been the victim of recklessly violent behavior in Brunson/Holt's driving. Brunson and Holt got what they deserved; Bonilla should be free.

  3. No moral ambiguity at all Curmudgeon? Maybe, as a criminal matter, we shouldn't second-guess his decision to use lethal force, but we can still ask whether something less (a warning shot?) was better.

  4. Trillin's question provokes another one: where is the outrage from those who promote defensive gun use?!! Where are the Tea Partiers when we need them? JL, GK, where are you?

  5. I eagerly await InstaGlenn's entirely visceral and not at all calculated outrage at the injustice visited on this all-American self-defender.

  6. grog is being sarcastic, but my sense is that Curmudgeon, above, speaks for the academic gun-rights crowd. The TPers are a different matter, but I suspect that most of them would have voted to acquit. Racism is a strong political force, but it isn't the only political force.

  7. When police officers empty a clip into some guy holding a wallet, it's explained as training, reflex, nerves, a concern for safety, whatever. But I guess civilians are supposed to be much better trained.

  8. No, as a general matter, civilians are expected to be aware that the police won't cover for them, and so to be more careful than police.

    My own opinion? If somebody get vaccinated for measles, goes into anaphylactic shock, and dies, should this cause people who romanticize modern medicine to think long and hard? I don't think an armed populace is going to create some kind of utopia, I just think it's better than a disarmed populace, especially given the sort of government it would take to disarm THIS populace.

  9. "2. If Bonilla had been unarmed, would he have refrained from the obscene gesture? Maybe."

    If so, so much for the Armed Society = Polite Society.

    Except I've seen plenty of unarmed finger-flipping, so maybe not.

  10. I would say that there is some small amount of moral ambiguity but not much. I generally agree with Curmudgeon on this one. Without a gun it is very possible that we wouldn't be hearing about this case at all, and that Sam Bonilla wouldn't have ever been heard from again.

  11. I'm not in favor of gun rights per say, but rather in favor of a robust right to self defense in general. If someone is threatened, they should be able to protect themselves with whatever they have at their disposal, be it a firearm or a crowbar.

    I can't see the traditional "gun rights" nexus (NRA, teabaggers, etc) speaking out in favor of Bonilla because much of that movement is based on xenophobia and racial hatred. Their story would be a lot different if Bonilla was white and his assailants hispanic or black, however.

  12. If we believe Bonilla, the drunks attempted to assault him with a deadly weapon, their car. Then these two beefy guys got out of the car and looked like they were going to attack him. I'm not a gun-rights activist at all, but it sounds to me like he was defending himself and the kids.

  13. The other lesson here is that too many prosecutors don't take seriously the idea of "proof beyond reasonable doubt." If they think someone's guilty more likely than not, they'll roll the dice with the jury. And too many juries convict when the evidence could oint either way. If Bonilla was in reasonable fear of serious injury by the two drunks, then what he did wan't a crime; how could a reasonable person conclude beyond reasonable doubt that he wasn't in reasonable fear?

  14. Brandishing the gun and shouting "Get back!" is warning a enough. No warning shot is necessary. If the fact are as presented, Bonilla was entirely justified. Racism is the only explanation. If he was not in legal possession of the gun, convict him of that, not the shooting and/or its result.

  15. This happened in dodge city. The men were never warned he was armed. There was never a physical altercation no one ever touched anyone other than when Sam Bonilla touched my brother's chest with one hand a put the gun to his heart and shot with the other. FACTS FACTS FACTS you should know them before you try to tell a story!

  16. steven holt was my husband..calvin trillion only told a story. There was so much evidence that was not in his story.. Like two hispanic women that testified at the contested prelim that sam lied no one was in danger.. The vehicle never sped up or zig zagged towards anyone.. It did not mention that bonilla ran ditched the gun and then later went to police because his vehicle was still in the location.. When he first spoke to police he claimed to be a witness and not the shooter.. It was not until he was identified as the shooter did he claim self defense.. And then later that my husband was racist..

  17. everyone wanted a piece of this case.. Self defense activist, gun activist, hispanic right groups..etc.. All trying to make my husband look bad.. They did not know we were multiracial family, steven spoke fluent spanish, we believe in the rigt to bear arms, steven had rifles and loved to hunt, we believe in thr right to defend oneself, however the situation must render self defense..

  18. You don't have facts. You don't even try to gather facts to support what you write. Maybe you should of paid the hundred dollars to get the transcripts from the prelim hearing. It is not hard to get the transcripts my sister in law walked right into court house and paid for a copy. There are facts out there use them. It has been 9 months since my brother was murdered. Do you not think he should be allowed to rest in peace by now!!!!!!!!!!!! Sam is in prison and then yes he will be deported. Steven is still dead and we are trying to heal and move on why dont you consider that and let it go!!! If Sam was such a christian man why did he tell so many lies? Why did he say he had a conceal and carry license when he did not? Why was he carrying a gun that belonged to a woman in another state who reported it was lost at Walmart in Dodge City? When he found the gun at walmart why did he not turn it into the police other than keep it and use it to murder a man right in front of his children then run and leave those children to watch their father die right before their eyes???????????????????????????????????????????

  19. People need to know that this case has a hidden side that revolves around the murder of 2 men in mexico by samuels older brother, Eric Bonilla in 1975 (yes he is a pistollero also, now living in las vegas,nv and yes he has shot and wounded a man here! He is currently in route and planning on visiting his brother in prison this very week with his mother and other family members from palm springs and little rock). This older brother Eric, WANTED by mexican authorities, and with the help of his father, ran for the border and crossed into the USA illegally to escape his retribution. Assuming a false Identity (he has 2)and with coaching from new found friends in the illegal alien communitys of Ca,Il,Fl,Tx,Ks this older brother learned to use, milk and abuse the system. Over time he learned to manipulate it so well (marriages,anchor babies,reagans amnesty,etc) he eventually brought over the majority of the rest of his family, illegally initially, but now most are here legally at the tax payers expense, and reside from southern California, Nevada, Arkansas, Colorado, and yes Dodge city Kansas. They have thrived and somewhat prospered here to the point that they now number over 30. Some are hard working "good people" and others are not! My point is that if we had not allowed our country to be invaded by the 50 million illegal aliens let into this country since 1965, yet another senseless, meaningless crime would not have been committed through a strange and long series of cause and effect events, albeit over a period of 34 years. Even now and with Arizonas new law (he is very nervous about this) he still plans to drive I-40 from kingman,Az to little rock, Ar up into kansas and then back again with impunity because he is confident that by hiding in plain sight in his Red Nissan Frontier pickup truck with Nv plates that he wont be stopped and checked to thourhouly. They cannot seem to catch him in Ca or Nv. even though they each had chances in the past year.

  20. im steven holts mother, this whole business has tore me apart and my children. all grandchildren too.

    i believe in the right to defend your self if its called for. if no gun would have been no crime. some ppl arent made to carry guns, as bonilla was not thinking and made some rash dicisions. i believe he would have found someone to tangle with that day, just happened to happen with my son. my son would never kill anyone

    and bonilla was the one that took three steps toward my son and placed that gun on his chest and shot him twice, district attorney told us they asked him why he shot him twice, he said he didnt fall,

    my son didnt deserve to die in the dirt. he was a valuable person in our family and for me. he was always there to help us all. i had 6 daughters and three sons now i have two. he was a hard worker and had a big heart. he was a pillar in our household and to many other friends of ours.

    he in no way deserved to die in the dirt. how it feels now that his gone, it feels like the light has been turned off forever. and when bonilla placed that gun on his heart he touched all of us and ppl that loved him

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