Thankfully, jury trials in legitimate self-defense cases don't happen very often. Unfortunately, we just had one of those cases here in America's heartland with the Illinois murder trial of James Love. The entire affair offers a number of opportunities to learn some very valuable lessons.
Usually, in self-defense cases, common sense prevails and prosecutors rightfully decline to pursue criminal charges. Add in some PR opportunism and some political ambition, however, and things can change. Indeed, in the James Love case, we saw plenty of that.
The local prosecutor, Knox County Assistant State's Attorney Brian Kerr, had his own agenda in bringing charges in the case. The deceased man's family had political connections in the community and ASA Kerr had ambitions of running for the top job after his boss retired at the end of this term. What better way to curry political favor and burnish a resume than to win a high-profile murder case, right?
Of course, the media did their part too. Both the mainstream media and the victim's family did their best to put a sensational George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin spin on things. The local papers ran opposing photos of the two, just like in the Trayvon Martin case. A youthful photo of the deceased next to the jailhouse mugshot of the shooter. The only thing missing was the claim that love was a "white Hispanic".
On the other hand, James Love, 59, lived and worked his family farm in rural Galva. Well-respected in the community, he had built a solid reputation among those who know him. Now he will have to deal with the Mark of Cain for the rest of his life. People in the community will forever associate him with the death of an unarmed 19-year-old "boy".
Clearly, the incident and its aftermath offer lots of opportunities for study. Love did some things well and made some unfortunate unforced errors. The wise looks at a situation such as this and learns some lessons.
Call the authorities before acting as a good Samaritan
James Love heard a car crash outside his home. Then he heard yelling. Not knowing if someone needed emergency help, he dressed, grabbed his phone, a gun and headed out of the house to the scene as a good Samaritan.
Love's spidey senses told him to use caution, so he exited the backdoor of the home, making sure not to silhouette himself. He then approached through the farm field instead of walking down the rural county road.
Obviously, he should have called the authorities and gotten help on the way before going out to offer assistance.
Take your gun: Don't leave home without it
Remember those old American Express commercials advising, "Don't leave home without it?" The same goes for your concealed carry pistol. James Love took his Ruger LC9s with him that fateful night. That decision probably saved his life. The 59-year-old farmer was no match for an angry, drunk, 19-year-old body-builder who was fearful of a police response.
Get some training
James Love had no formal firearms training. He didn't even have a concealed carry license.
I advocate training for every gun owner. Emphatically. I've encouraged people to seek out quality training at TTAG. Sadly, despite my message encouraging people to get good training, some of the feedback to that advice has been rather…caustic:
In response to my piece, a couple of commenters rapped civilian firearms training for a host of reasons. One went as far as to call me an unscrupulous a-hole collecting a ton of money teaching pure, unadulterated, uh, merde.
I had a chuckle. Who was it who said that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt? Oh yeah, Mark Twain.
The same person wrote that they didn’t trust firearms trainers/”dumbass mall ninjas” and that he’s too much of a cheap-ass to pay thousands of dollars and devote weeks of time to training. “‘Untrained’ people have perfectly good DGU’s all the time,” he wrote. “It seems to me that most of this stuff is a solution in want of a problem and it’s hellishly expensive in many cases.”
Good training can be found at very affordable prices – like less than a few hundred bucks. Yes, if you want to take Mas Ayoob's class, you will pay a premium. But if you know what to look for, you can usually find local quality classes for less than an emergency room visit co-pay.
Make sure you seek out training that includes a solid foundation of the legal parameters of using deadly force. That way you can act to the standard by which you will be judged.
Yes, James Love made it through this long, 8-month ordeal without formal training. In fact, you could say he did okay without training. That is, if you discount his legal bills which are closing in on $100,000, the emotional scars of killing someone and the Mark of Cain damage to his reputation.
Also ignore the physical scars from the beating he took. To say nothing of the need to constantly look over his shoulder as a result of ongoing death threats made by supporters of Xavier Hartman.
Don't rely on luck to triumph in a deadly force encounter…or in the aftermath.
Carry with a loaded chamber
We have covered this, as have countless nationally-known trainers. Yet some people who either don't know better or who don't trust their own gun-handling skills persist in carrying with an empty chamber (AKA "Israeli carry").
James Love carried his pistol with an empty chamber. That mistake nearly cost him his life.
At the crash site, Love pulled out his phone. The young man who had crashed his truck naturally thought that Love planned to call the police. Xavier Hartman did not want the police there. He had a blood alcohol level of .234, about three times the legal limit. So he attacked Love to stop a call for assistance.
The farmer tried backpedaling towards his house while getting pummeled by the drunk driver. Sensing things quickly going bad, James Love pulled his pistol, the one with the empty chamber. However, he quickly found that fending off an attack while racking the slide nearly impossible to accomplish.
Eventually he did manage to get the gun ready to fire, but by then Hartman had figured out why Mr. Farmer quit trying to defend himself from the blows. Then it became a contest for control of the gun.
Love first fired a warning shot, which we now believe ricocheted off the pavement and struck Hartman in the calf behind the midline. Which brings us to…
Never fire warning shots
Warning shots are never a good idea and sometimes illegal. Love fired a warning shot and then after another minute of struggling for control of the gun, he fired a second warning shot. They only seemed to embolden Hartman.
Of course, with a blood alcohol of .234, the young man had little ability to think particularly clearly or rationally.
Some, including myself, have speculated that those warning shots emboldened young Mr. Hartman. Why? Because the aggressor thought the farmer didn't have the stones to actually shoot another person. So Hartman pursued his attack, figuring he could wrest control of the gun from the old man with little fear of being shot.
We all know that we retain responsibility for every bullet that leaves the barrel of our gun. In Love's case, one of his arguments for conviction centered around the ricochet from the first warning shot. It hit Hartman in the lower leg behind the mid-line. In the anti-gun prosecutor's eyes, Love shot the "unarmed black boy" as he ran away from a trigger-happy old white guy.
ASA Kerr ignored that the round could have entered from the backside of the calf during a highly dynamic struggle. But a story claiming that "he shot young black boy from behind as he ran away" sells more newspapers.
Be ready to defend your choice in ammunition
ASA Brian Kerr made a big production of Love's choice in ammunition used in his Ruger LC9s. Love had two magazines, each loaded with seven hollow-point rounds. The prosecutor claimed that the fact Love that left his house with hollow-points showed ill intent. Even an inclination to kill. "He left that house looking for trouble carrying those hollow-points."
Never mind that hollow-points have a reduced ricochet potential, making them safer for bystanders. They also have far less likelihood of over-penetration, endangering bystanders. In fact, as they dump their energy into their target instead of zipping on through, it's arguable that they're safer for the bad guy, too. Fewer holes for the docs to repair and all that.
Don't leave your significant other unarmed
Xavier Hartman and his friend had started walking towards Love's house after the accident as it was the only residence nearby. If Hartman had successfully disarmed Love (and maybe even murdered him with his own gun), would he have left any witnesses inside the residence?
While I don't know if Mrs. Love had some sort of ballistic deterrent at hand that fateful night, she should have. Her husband required hospital treatment for his injuries, including a lot of stitches. Love admits worrying that he would soon lose consciousness during the attack. And a loss of consciousness would have meant loss of control of his firearm. That would have meant his attacker would have had his gun.
In 2018, almost ten percent of police officers killed by gunfire (4 of 52), died from shots from their own guns after they'd been disarmed. And cops get training in firearms handling, empty-hand combat, and weapon retention.
James Love, like so many gun owners, had exactly none of that. If he had taken a knock-out punch from Xavier Hartman that night, things could have turned into a double-murder pretty quickly had Mrs. Love not had a gun handy.
Don't answer police questions before consulting your attorney
"Don't talk to police" stands as good advice if you cannot remember what to say following a deadly force incident.
James Love answered questions from responding and investigating officers before invoking his right to legal counsel. Of course, ASA Kerr poured over the notes of those officers and tried to make hay of even the slightest discrepancies. Because, in Kerr's mind, inconsistencies equaled
guilt a conviction.
The lesson: never talk to the police after a self-defense shooting beyond, "I was afraid for my life, I think I need medical help, I want to talk to my attorney."
Which brings us to legal defense coverage.
Have legal defense coverage
Even if you don't have a concealed carry license, you should sign up for legal defense coverage. Some people refer to this as "concealed carry insurance."
Plenty of companies out there offer this kind of coverage. My personal favorite remains the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network. A $135 annual sign-up gets you up to $800,000-ish in coverage. Renewals are less than $100.
They have a great list of criminal defense attorneys they recommend anywhere in the USA. Or you can use their money to pay for your own attorney. They also offer expert witness referrals.
Mention my name or Guns Save Life/GSL and save $25 off your first year's membership. Fair disclosure: I am not paid by ACLDN, nor do I receive kickbacks or commissions when people mention my name upon enrollment. After looking over the various companies, I personally recommend them because I see them as the best value out there for what they offer. Your mileage may vary, of course.
US Law Shield offers coverage similar to ACLDN, at a similar price, only you have to use US Law Shield's attorneys. Got teenage kids in school? US Law Shield has a rider for a couple of bucks a month where their attorneys will represent your minor children if they use force or weapons in self-defense outside the home. Mention Guns Save Life and they will waive the processing fee as I understand it.
For those seeking comprehensive coverage to include things like lost wages, bail bonds, and much, much more, the US Concealed Carry Association stands as a very good choice. Their premium coverage comes at a higher cost though. SIgn up through group sales if you're a Guns Save Life member and save 15% off your dues. If you're not a GSL member, sign up through the group sales and mention us and we'll get a few bucks.
All three of these companies pay up-front for legal representation. Gone are the days where some reimburse you for your defense costs upon acquittal. Protect yourself from financial ruin. You may be very glad you did some day.
Follow your lawyer's advice
Once you have retained an attorney or law firm, follow their advice. You may face personal attacks, threats and an onslaught of trash talk on social media. Lord knows James Love and his family faced all of the above. Yet he listened to his attorneys and followed their recommendations to the letter.
That probably helped him earn his quick acquittal as much as anything.
Hopefully you will never need to use deadly force to save your life or that of a family member. No one wants that. At the same time, sometimes life deals you a bad hand and you're left with no other option.
However, sound tactics will help you survive the encounter. Just as important, knowing and acting to the legal standard to which you will be judged will help court-proof you as much as possible for the aftermath. You may not need it. But sometimes you get a prosecutor with political ambitions and you don't want to become his or her pawn.