WSAV TV-3 Savanah
Many folks keep a gun in their home or business. For them, just having one brings a sense of security. But if you choose to fire at someone threatening your life, are you truly protected when the day is done?
When you're talking self-defense, South Carolina's gun laws can be confusing, even the Solicitor admitted that to me. But the vagueness of the laws may be on purpose, so those who try to take advantage of them don't get off Scott-free.
In 2006, South Carolina joined a list of states, which includes Georgia that has a Defense of Habitation law, commonly referred to as Castle Doctrine. It says that your home and business are your castle and you have the right to protect them and your Queen, Prince and Princess inside.
And that's exactly what Hardeeville's Herbie Tolar did when his daughter was threatened at gunpoint during a robbery last November at Greene’s Package Store. Tolar and his wife fired away even when the robber was at the road. But one NEWS 3 viewer had a problem after he saw the surveillance video.
In an e-mail titled, "Glad I Wasn't Shot," a Bluffton viewer wrote: "The store owners fired the shots randomly as the robber ran away, with no regard for the safety of any innocent people who could have been passing by." He went on to say, "I understand the family felt their life was threatened, however, I also feel that they should be held accountable for blindly firing shots that could have hit me or anyone else who happened to be coming down John Smith Road.”
So that brings up the argument, Shoot or Don't Shoot? It's no bulls-eye question.
I said, “I got nine shots, spray the area, chances are you'll get him,” Herbie Tolar remembers of the night he and his family were robbed at gunpoint.
It's a gamble he took that night, and although he didn't think twice on how to play the hand he was dealt, he's still not sure who won the game.
“To me, it was a life or death situation,” Tolar said. “But I missed him and that's how it is."
Police believe Eric McBeth is the one who held Tolar and his daughter at gunpoint demanding money. For that alone, the Tolars want him dead.
"He threatened my life, therefore I'll kill him,” said Tolar. “My wife says if she sees him today on the street she wouldn't have any qualms about shooting him now."
Just a day after the ordeal, Hardeeville Police Chief Richard Nagy stood behind Tolar's reaction.
"The victim perceived threat and then responded accordingly,” Nagy said last November. “We don't want citizens taking the law into their own hands; however you do have a fine line with perceived threat."
So was there a fine line at Greene’s Package Store that night and did Herbie Tolar ever cross it?
"There's also the issue of safety of the community for firing a handgun,” 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said, referring to South Carolina’s laws on self dense.
Although Stone would not give an opinion whether Herbie Tolar could have been a story of good guy- turned bad guy, he did answer a generic "what-if?" which some have wondered in this scene.
What if you happen to shoot an innocent person while trying to defend yourself or your family?
"This is when the determination of whether or not your actions were reasonable comes into play,” Stone said. And it's going to come into play right off the bat with law enforcement officers; it's going to be an issue with me as the prosecutor, to determine whether or not I prosecute you and bring charges against you. It is also going to be the main issue before the grand jury and the petit jury that decides your fate."
So how can gun-owners protect themselves physically and legally?
Figuring that out is the goal of the students at Paladin Training in Florence, SC. A January class NEWS 3 attended included a restaurant owner, a woman who fears her cell phone service wouldn't work if she was in danger, two Darlington police officers, and a News Reporter who had never fired a gun. It was a defensive handgun class, not a requirement for South Carolina gun carriers like the Concealed Weapon Permit.
Luckily, the group was in the hands of former cop Steve Cooper: a good guy who's witnessed the bad guy tactics.
"Sometimes bad people put us in positions where there is no good answer,” Cooper said.
While inside the classroom, Steve Cooper told us our rules and rights, but it was outside where we put them to the test.
After getting comfortable with the gun and its power, the trainers put the students through a scenario Herbie Tolar actually experienced: only two or three seconds to decide your safest bet.
"We also put them in decision making scenarios where they have to relocate in order to engage the bad guy because there may be non-combatants behind the bad guy,” Cooper said.
It's the most serious part of the day, because if it were real, their choice could determine the destiny of the good guy, too.
“It could put them in a real bad situation…the legal stuff and possibly going to jail,” Cooper said. “And worse than that, you could have hurt an innocent person who didn't deserve to be hurt, which I think is probably the worst part about it." "The main thing, Holly, is I feel like I'm making a difference in people's lives and maybe keeping them out of some serious trouble,” he added.
So did Herbie Tolar come out on top?
"If there were cars coming by, I wouldn't have shot,” Tolar assured NEWS 3.
If being lucky John Smith Road was clear gets him points, then he probably won.
But that night sure grazed Herbie and the store with a string of hardship.
You won't find him selling liquor anymore; he just couldn't take risk that came along with it. The new operators don't let customers past the barred door and the money making check cashing business is over.
But if there is a scorecard, Eric McBeth and the two police say helped him are still behind bars. And Herbie Tolar has a little more peace.
"We sleep a little better at night, my wife and I do,” Tolar said.
Tolar also said how thankful he is to live in a state that allows him to have a gun and feel ok about using it when necessary. He's now considering the Concealed Weapon Permit course so he can carry a gun wherever he goes, instead of just at his business or home.
No trial date has been set for Eric McBeth, but we'll be following the case and be sure to let you know what happens.