High Volume Shootout: The Harry Beckwith Incident
Situation: A gun dealer faces robbers, again. Tonight the odds are seven to one against him.
Lesson: When the wolf pack has you, an armed citizen needs high capacity defensive weapons.
Harry Beckwith's Guns in Alachua County, Florida, is probably my favorite gunshop. It isn't just that smell of gun oil, cigar smoke, and old, worn leather that reminds me of the gun shops of my youth. It isn't just the fabulous Luger collection that resides there, nor the excellent buys, especially on collectibles. Harry's place has a karmic touch of the armed citizen about it that you don't find in the atmosphere of your average firearms emporium.
The revolver always visible at Harry's belt is nothing new for the gunshop habitude. Sometimes he wears a modest Charter Arms .44 Bulldog, and sometimes a Smith & Wesson Model 60 .38 Special with the fabulous Tiffany silver grips that you normally only see in the coffee table gun books.
No, what's different about Harry's is that as soon as you step out of your car in the spacious parking lot, you notice the bullet holes in the concrete outer walls of the building. Inside you see more holes in the walls.
There's a photo of a rifle champion next to his bullseye target and there's a hole in the bullseye - a REAL hole, which also pierces glass and backing.
"I like to tell folks that I put that one there intentionally," says Harry with a puckish grin. At 68, Harry admits that his recollection is a bit cloudy, but he figures that in his 35 years in the retail gun business he has experienced right at 35 robberies and burglaries. He proudly notes that in all those rip-offs and heist attempts, only two firearms were not recovered.
He also remembers the only three times when the thieves were unfortunate enough to face him. Each time, it evolved into a gun battle. Each time, he shot them and they didn't get to shoot him.
The first was a pure pistol fight. Harry drew and shot the robber, who lost all interest in carrying on the fight. This saved his life; when the wounded gunman surrendered, Harry Beckwith, a moral man, didn't shoot him again.
In the second shootout, the gun dealer interrupted a felon about to drive off with guns he'd heisted from the store. Though not a Class III weapons dealer, Beckwith was federally licensed to possess such arms for his own use. When the thug raised a .45 auto pistol at Harry, Beckwith trumped his ace with a burst of full automatic fire from a Smith & Wesson Model 76 9mm submachine gun. Struck in the forehead, the gunman dropped his pistol and screamed, "I'm hit!"
"Get out of the car," Beckwith roared back. The man did, and realizing he was still alive despite a gunshot wound in the forehead, he ran. Once more, Beckwith held fire.
The man was captured later and treated for an ugly but minor head injury from a flattened- out 9mm hollowpoint round that had lost most of it's energy piercing the safety glass of the windshield.
That incident took place in 1976, the Bicentennial of our nation's independence. A Class III weapons owner had delivered a splendidly appropriate demonstration of the independence our nation was celebrating. In the "the spirit of "76," he stopped a violent criminal with a Model 76.
But neither of these had prepared Harry Beckwith, then 63, old enough to collect Social Security and qualify as a Senior Citizen, for the incident that left his place of business bearing the distinctive scars you can see there to this day.
The night of November 12, 1990, promised to be a quiet one. The regular bowling pin shoot had finished up less than an hour ago. The gunshop was securely locked up, and so was the separate indoor shooting range building located behind it.
Harry Beckwith was at home with his wife in their beautiful hacienda, separated from the business structures by about 100 yards of beach sand and trees. A picturesque setting that would make the quintessential Florida postcard.
Harry was relaxed and watching TV. It was 9:50 p.m. Suddenly, two discordant sounds pierced the night. One was the distinctive crash of a heavy vehicle being driven through the steel-reinforced glass door in the concrete entryway of the gunshop. The other was the yelping of the burglar alarm.
Beck with moved instantly. He knew his rural location was remote; even though the police would be rolling immediately, he wasn't sure they could get there in time.
He moved smoothly and certainly, with the economy of motion that comes with age and with planning. He knew his wife would get on the phone and put a gun in her own hand, in a safe place. That left his mind free to cope with the problem of dealing with the marauders.
He reached for the weapons he had laid out for just such a contingency.
First was a Charter Arms Bulldog revolver in an old Bucheimer crossdraw paddle holster. It slipped easily into place in front of his left hip. It was loaded with five rounds of his favorite .44 Special ammunition, Winchester Silvertip hollowpoint.
Next came the Model 76 submachine gun. One magazine was in place, the bolt properly closed, "condition three." More magazines were rubber-banded to the extended stock. Beckwith had found this to be a faster way to access them than to attach a pouch in the same place. He slung the licensed submachine gun over his right shoulder.
He picked up an AR-15, a gun he has always described as a "Colt Sporting Rifle." It contained one magazine downloaded to only 15 rounds. Another such magazine was banded to its plastic stock as well.
With the other hand, he scooped up a Remington Model 1100 12 gauge semiautomatic shotgun, already fully loaded.
Figuring he was ready for anything, Harry Beckwith quietly stepped out into the shadows, moving away from the house in the direction of the shop, some 100 paces distant.
He could see that two vehicles were there, both '88 Oldsmobiles, one blue and one white. Numerous adult male figures were scurrying in and out of the shop, bearing armloads of guns to the cars through the door they'd crashed. He couldn't make out color or age, only that they were grown men, and that they were maybe seven of them.
At a point between the shop and the house, he carefully laid the shotgun down out of sight. It would be a fallback weapon if he had to retreat in that direction. He took the AR-15 in both hands, ready, and moved forward again.
But there was a full moon out, and the same moonlight that had allowed him to observe the criminals allowed them to see him. Beckwith knew then he'd been "made".
"I should've been more in the shadows," Beckwith would tell me years later. "He gunned the car straight at me. I'm too old to run. I fired off my shoulder at him and the vehicle."
When the butt of the rifle hit the shoulder pocket, Beckwith opened fire, manipulating the trigger as fast as he could. Suddenly, the AR was not responding; he had run dry.
The vehicle was still coming at him, rapidly closing the 50 yards distance.
A skilled man can reload an AR-15 almost as quickly as a Colt .45 auto, and Harry Beckwith is skilled at arms. As his right index finger punched the mag release, his left hand broke the spare magazine free of the rubber band and slammed it home with a practiced motion, his left thumb almost simultaneously pressing the bolt drop paddle on the left side of the frame.
He resumed fire, as fast as he could work the gun.
The high-pitched crack of the AR-15 could not drown out the dull chong sound of the .223 ball rounds punching through the auto body, nor the distinctive sound of heavy glass breaking. The vehicle swerved off course, and Harry ran dry again.
As he dropped the now useless rifle, the blue Oldsmobile veered away from him, cutting to its left. It threw a giant rooster-tail of dust as the driver accelerated away from the old man he had tried seconds before to crush to death. Beckwith saw the car disappear onto Route 441.
Beckwith turned his attention back toward the shop. Five more of the burglars were there, most holding guns, pistols and longer weapons.
Silhouetted in the moonlight, too old to run, still facing five-to-one odds against men with all kinds of guns capable of easily killing him from 50 yards away and who could easily have loaded up with some of the thousands of rounds they'd had access to for some time now, Beckwith knew he was still in deadly danger.
He swung up the Smith & Wesson submachine gun, racked the open bolt back and cut loose on full automatic.
"I fired high, over their heads, to keep them down," he would explain later. "I used short bursts."
He saw them duck. He knew it had bought him a moment. But his near-death experience with the blue Oldsmobile bearing down on him was fresh in his mind. If they crawled up the covered side of the car, they could do the same with the white Olds.
And if two magazines of .223 hadn't disabled the other identical vehicle, what could he hope to do with 9mm fire? He realized that the time to disable the felons' second car was now.
He swept it from one end to the other, reloaded, and continued. Every window in the Oldsmobile disintegrated as the copper jacketed bullets tore through. Beckwith had stagger- loaded the magazines with hardball and Remington 115 gr. jacketed hollowpoints. The tires deflated with an audible hiss.
Beckwith saw the surviving perps moving away from the vehicle. Now the big danger was being shot instead of being run down. A second empty S&W magazine hit the ground, and Beckwith opened another burst of diversionary fire with a third stick.
The perpetrators had enough. He saw them run around the corner of the building. He took a cover position and waited.
The first police car pulled into the scene approximately one minute later. To Beckwith, it seemed as if he waited an hour.
However, reconstruction of the incident would show that it had been only three minutes from when the alarm sounded to when the first responding Alachua County deputy made it into the gunshop. The incident itself had lasted less than two minutes.
During that time, Harry Beckwith had fired 105 shots.
By 2 a.m. all surviving perpetrators had been arrested and were in custody. Six were at the jail and one at morgue. Roger Patterson, age 18, was found dead in the wreck of the shot up Oldsmobile. He'd gotten across the line into Marion County with one tire shot away, driving 13 miles before he lost control and crashed. Cause of death was a .223 rifle wound through the chest.
The second man in the blue car was captured near the scene.
Both cars had been hot-wired and stolen. Some 20 stolen firearms were found in each car. The white Olds had been so badly shot up it had to be towed from the scene.
Patterson was the only one hit. This was because he was the only one Beckwith fired at. Most of his shots had been directed at keeping the other men's heads down and dissuading them, and at disabling their second vehicle, goals he achieved with spectacular success.
Beckwith told me later, "I could have killed all five of them, at the end, when they were running away and exposed to me. But I was no longer in danger from them, so chose not to shoot them."
Beckwith had high praise for the professionalism of the Alachua County Sheriff's Deputies in general, and particularly for those who responded that night - with one possible exception.
There is still anger in his voice when he relates, "One of them wanted to read me my rights!" However, the anger fades when he continues, " And then a sergeant said to the guy, "He's the victim, for Christ's sake!''
He is still bitter about having to speak before the grand jury. Most Florida jurisdictions bring justifiable homicides before a grand jury as a matter of course, but being in there alone without legal counsel still has a "star chamber" feel to it that leaves you with no warm fuzziness about the experience at all.
As any high school civics student knows, the function of a grand jury is to determine if you've committed a crime. That's a bitter pill to swallow when someone just ripped you off and tried to run you down like a possum in the road. Harry Beckwith still bitterly refers to his cross-examination before the grand jury as an "inquisition."
However, the system generally works, and Shakespeare was right when he said, "The truth will out." The grand jury returned a verdict of no true bill, in effect, designating the incident a justifiable use of lethal force.
What leaves Harry Beckwith most unhappy today is that these perpetrators, initially charged with felony murder, were allowed to plead down to attempted burglary. They turned out to range in age from 16 to 21.
Harry Beckwith fired two magazines of 15 rounds each from the Colt .223 rifle, and two full mags and part of a third from the S & W submachine gun. Only one bullet caused death.
The great majority of his gunfire fell into the "warning shot" category - suppressive fire if you will. We can argue at length about the concept of the warning shot, but the fact remains that in this case, it fulfilled its intended purpose.
It was not lost on the grand jury that exculpated Harry Beckwith that he could have killed all seven perpetrators, and chose not to. It was likewise to his benefit that twice before in his life, he had shown mercy and not killed men he'd shot when they gave up the fight after he wounded them.
Every case I've seen of a shooting with a lawfully owned Class III weapon has gone to a Grand Jury. Some of those grand juries have indicted.
However, every time it was provably self-defense, the subsequent Petit jury has also acquitted the shooter. Still, such trials are extremely expensive for the defendant.
(Interestingly, Florida is one of only two states, the other being Washington state, where an accused citizen found "not guilty" at trial can be reimbursed legal fees and costs by the local government.)
A good general rule for avoiding trial in a justifiable shooting would be, "Semi-auto yes, full-auto no."
In the November, 1990, incident, Beckwith fired more rounds than any armed citizen has probably fired in legitimate self-defense since the Indian Wars. I'm glad he got out of it ok.
Beckwith's domination and unscathed survival of this incident is owed in large part to the fact that he was allowed to lawfully possess high cartridge capacity, rapid-fire weapons for self-defense, the sort of "assault weapons" our current Administration would forbid other Americans to possess.
When Ted Gogol of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America was putting together a group of citizens who had used such firearms to protect their own lives and those of other innocent people, I put him in touch with Harry Beckwith, who would have gone to testify before Congress but for the fact that his wife was ill and he couldn't leave her.
But Harry Beckwith didn't need to testify in Congress to show that he's the kind of tough American who can stand up for his rights, temper justice with mercy, and take care of himself, even against seven-to-one odds if someone is trying to kill him.
As long as he is allowed to own and use the kind of weapons that give him parity against the sort of brutal criminal that runs in packs, and tries to run down and kill senior citizens who would dare to interfere with their lawless depredations.
The Ayoob Files