The shootings came fast, a bang-bang-bang cluster of cases starting in early autumn that quickly had police, prosecutors and the media wondering about the sudden impact of Texas’ new castle law.
Salvador, Dennis Baker’s Mexican red-headed parrot, tipped him off to a burglar at his Dallas home in October.
A business owner who lives at his West Dallas welding shop killed two men in three weeks as they tried to break in.
A 79-year-old homeowner in east Oak Cliff, awakened by his dog, struggled with an intruder before grabbing a shotgun and wounding the man.
A retired Army warrant officer managed to kill a gun-wielding robber at a Far East Dallas dry cleaners after his wife surprised the intruder and handed her husband their own 9 mm handgun.
Texas has long had a reputation as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later place, dating back to its frontier days.
But the spate of shootings begs the question: Did the castle law – which gives people the right to use whatever means necessary to protect themselves and their property without fear of civil liability – unleash a flurry of gunfire?
Perhaps just as important, has the law changed people’s perceptions about fighting back? Are they more likely to shoot first even when safe retreat may be an option?
“I think the castle law has more citizens thinking about fighting back, knowing they’re protected from being sued later,” said Dallas homeowner Dennis Baker.
He shot and killed a burglar in October after seeing the man enter the garage where he stored thousands of dollars worth of tools.
But Dr. Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, doesn’t think the castle law governs someone’s thinking when they hear a window softly opening late at night, or the crash of a door coming down in a home invasion.
“In situations in which people would be making a decision to use defensive violence, it’s very unlikely they’d be thinking about laws and penalties,” he said. “That would be the furthest thing from their mind.”
Certainly the castle law has become a high-profile addition to the Texas statutes since it took effect Sept. 1, but police and the district attorneys association argue that it brought little substantial change.
While it appeared to apply to each of these cases, so did a batch of other laws, along with the tradition of Texas juries giving people every benefit of the doubt when protecting themselves, their families and their property.
None of these property owners was charged. Police referred a few cases to the Dallas County grand jury, which declined to indict. In others, police determined that the shootings were justified.
And they see the rash of shootings as part of a normal cycle, not a trend.
Dallas police homicide investigators said they’ve yet to encounter a self-defense situation since the castle law took effect that would have been barred under previous laws.
“There may come a time when that’s not the case,” said Lt. Craig Miller. “But I would have to look at each of those under its own merits.”
Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said he didn’t know of a single Texas case in which the castle law would have made a difference.
“The reality is Texas grand juries routinely no-billed deadly force cases under the old law, which was very lenient,” he said. “Many of the cases that you read about center on defense of property laws, which were always very, very lenient in the use of deadly force.
“That’s just how Texas is.”