Her name isn’t Carole, but that’s what we will call her. She was a divorced single mom in Indiana, whose son was grown and whose teenage daughter, we’ll call her Dorothy, still lived with her.
She was always careful about her relationships with men, and didn’t have many. When she met Tommy, a man who lived in Michigan, they dated long distance for 4 years, and then he moved to Indiana to live with her for another 4 years.
That time was almost perfect. Tommy held various jobs in home construction and in auto repair. He was so strong he could lift a car engine by himself. He was also a really nice person. “As good as gold,” Carole says. He got along well with Carole’s children, who treated him like a stepfather, and everyone got along when his kids came to visit. He would drink a few beers, but alcohol was never a problem. He didn’t do drugs. He was never violent. Carole loved him deeply.
She mostly did factory work, but at one point had to drive, at night, through some areas that were considered quite dangerous. A man who had been impersonating a police officer had attacked several women near there. Tommy was concerned for Carole’s safety, and urged her to get a gun that she could take with her to and from work. She got a firearms license, and two guns, a .44 revolver and a .22 automatic. She practiced with them once, but since she really didn’t like them very much, she never went back to the range. “I thought I’d never have to use the gun, so I never went to practice,” she said. She would take a gun with her in the car to work, and when she slept she would have a gun on the nightstand near her bed. Her daughter knew about the gun, but they had a house rule that her daughter never came into her room when her mother was sleeping.
Finally, the relationship began to have problems. Tommy had another woman. Carole would not put up with that. She made Tommy leave, and changed the locks after he moved out.
I know what you are thinking here. That the most dangerous time for a woman is just after she ends a relationship, because that is when the man is most likely to become violent. Well, it happened to Carole. Tommy came over, and they got into a bit of an argument over that other woman, “How would you like it,” Carole said, “if you came over and saw some other man’s truck in my driveway?” That set Tommy off, and he started to beat her. He gave her a black eye, then he smothered her, and then he hit her head on the wall. It happened so fast that Carole didn’t have a chance to defend herself.
Later, he apologized, but from that moment on, Carole didn’t entirely trust him. She still loved him, but she knew what he was capable of. That violent outburst had caught her by surprise, but she wasn’t going to let it happen again.
For more than a year, (a year!) Carole and Tommy lived apart, but continued to see one another from time to time, without any incidents. Then, for two weeks, things started going bad. Carole wanted to break off all contact with Tommy. He had other ideas.
He started calling her incessantly, cussing and name calling. He would threaten to break her TV, destroy her computer, and hurt her. He said he would come and duct tape her, put her in his truck, and take her to someplace where her family would never find her dead body. He stole her purse, and broke the cell phone that was in it.
Carole made police reports. At first, the police told her that they could not do anything unless they caught him in her house. When he threw a rock through the new siding on her house, she called the police again, and by the time an officer showed up, Tommy was gone, but had called Carole on the phone. She handed the phone to the police officer. Tommy tried to pretend he was someone else, but the Caller ID on the phone gave him away. The officer warned him to stop calling Carole. He did stop calling her home phone, but started calling her cell phone instead.
Carole finally had enough recorded threats and other evidence to convince the police that her situation was becoming serious. The police suggested she get a restraining order, and even facilitated the process for her. She had an appointment the next morning at 8 AM to get the restraining order, but the night before that court date, Tommy showed up at her door.
It was just after 9 PM. Carole was in bed; her 14 -year-old daughter Dorothy was in the living room watching TV when the doorbell rang. Another house rule is that her daughter never answers the door, so Carole got up and went to the door. She knew not to open it without checking first to see who was there. She looked out and saw Tommy’s father’s truck in the driveway. Thinking that it was his father, not Tommy, who was there, she opened the inner door, keeping the glass storm door closed. She didn’t see anyone, so she opened the storm door to look for the older man. Tommy jumped out from around the corner, and rushed at the door. Carole did her best to slam it, but Tommy’s great strength quickly overpowered her efforts.
Dorothy came toward the front door to help her mother, but once Tommy was in, there was nothing she could do. Tommy started talking to Dorothy, saying things like, “You should make your mother talk to me.” Dorothy headed for her room, and Tommy followed. Carole took that opportunity to go to her own room to get her gun, the big .44 caliber revolver, which was always kept loaded.
Being left handed, she picked up the gun in her left hand. Then, with her right hand, she picked up the phone in her bedroom to call 911. Then she discovered that it isn’t easy to make a call with your non-dominant hand while under a lot of stress.
While she was struggling with the phone, Tommy came into the bedroom. She told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. He went behind the bed to where the phone cord connected to the wall. She knew that he was going to yank the cord out, and then come for her. She remembered what being beaten by him had been like. She kept telling him to stop, and when he didn’t she fired.
She only fired once, and wasn’t even sure, at first, if she had hit him. At first, he just stood there, but then he fell onto the bed, and she saw the blood from the abdominal wound. Carole ran out of the bedroom and got to her daughter as quickly as possible.
Tommy was calling for Carole to go back and help him, but Carole knew she could not do that.
Dorothy , though only 14, knew an emergency when she saw one, and she knew just what to do. With a coolness that most adults could not have possessed, she had already called 911 from a phone in her room, and had the police dispatcher on the phone when her mother came into her room, still holding the gun.
Carole describes her state at that moment as being “in a daze.” Frequent readers of this column will recognize that state as typical in the immediate aftermath of a critical incident. The dispatcher told Dorothy to tell Carole to put the gun down. Dorothy tried, but Carole didn’t seem to hear her. She tried again and again, and finally Carole put down the gun.
Mother and daughter went out on the front porch to wait for the police to arrive. Unbeknownst to them, Tommy had managed to get up and move from the bedroom to the front door, and then on to the porch with them. Perhaps he was trying get to his truck to get away, but he collapsed at Carole’s feet and remained there until the ambulance arrived.
The police immediately recognized the self-defense nature of the situation (Dorothy’s corroboration as a witness was undoubtedly valuable here), and Carole was not charged with any crime. Tommy’s injury, though serious, was not life threatening. He recovered, and was charged with the crime of residential entry.
How does Carole feel about guns now? “I’m still scared of them,” she says. “At first I gave my guns to my mother, to get them out of the house. Then my mother reminded me that I might need them again to protect my daughter, so I took them back.” She gave away the .44, but still has the .22 near to hand, day and night.
Carole has not seen Tommy since then, nor has she talked to him. She still loves him, she says, but knows that the relationship is dead. “I don’t want him to hate me for shooting him,” she says.
I asked the big question. If you could go back to that night, right at the point where you pulled the trigger, would you do it again? Her voice is sad, but she doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.” And then she adds, “I couldn’t let my daughter see anything happen to me. I had to do it.”
The lesson here is a sad one. Though it is difficult for us to do, we must consider that the person we will have to shoot might be someone dear to us. Sometimes it is mental illness that makes a person dangerous, sometimes it is drugs or alcohol or jealousy or ungovernable rage. Sometimes you don’t know what is causing the problem. You can do your best to get that person the help that they need to conquer their violent tendencies. You can do everything possible to keep away from that person. But if those strategies fail, you might be faced with Carole’s choice: let him injure you very seriously, maybe even kill you, or use a gun to stop him. Perhaps Carole’s certainty that she would do it again if she had to will help you make up your mind what you would do if someone you loved became a lethal threat.