Tragic shots: A hasty self-defense claims a new gun victim

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Two weeks ago a homeowner in Chickamauga, Ga., asserted his right to self-defense and another man was shot dead. Justice done? No, it was just another American tragedy in a land where the law increasingly invites tragedies.

Authorities said Joe Hendrix, 34, thought his victim was an intruder. It was 4 a.m. and someone had come to the front door, rung the door bell and jiggled the doorknob. Although 911 was called, Mr. Hendrix went outside and saw the man, whom he said ignored calls to identity himself and kept coming. Mr. Hendrix shot him four times with a Glock pistol.

But this was no intruder. Ronald Westbrook, 72, was a former U.S. Air Force officer who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He had wandered three miles from his home and had collected mail from people’s mailboxes. He was a danger only to himself.

Of course, it was nighttime and Mr. Hendrix could not have known that the man outside was elderly and suffering from dementia. A stranger at the door at that hour would be frightening for anyone, but if the resident had stayed inside and waited for police, this tragedy would not have happened.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hendrix had no duty to stay inside under Georgia’s Stand Your Ground Law, which is similar to those in nearly two dozen states, including Pennsylvania. These laws do not encourage people to retreat to safety before they shoot in self-defense as a last resort. On the contrary, they permit deadly force to be used if homeowners believe they are in imminent danger — an easy post-shooting excuse for the trigger-happy.

This basic idea is why the armed George Zimmerman got away with shooting an unarmed Trayvon Martin in Florida last year, a result that looks more like a travesty in light of Mr. Zimmerman’s subsequent troubles with the law.

It was why police hesitated to arrest a white man, Theodore P. Wafer, who shot to death an unarmed 19-year-old black woman, Renisha McBride, in suburban Detroit last month. She had come to his door in the early hours apparently seeking help after a car accident (he has since been charged with second-degree murder).

There is no racial angle to the Georgia shooting — it involved white men. It is merely the predictably poisonous fruit of a sour tree. A man stood his ground. An innocent man is now in the ground. Expect more until America comes to its senses.

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