In a Nation Armed to the Teeth, Tiny Missteps Lead to Tragedy

From a New York Times story by Jack Healy, Glenn Thrush, Eliza Fawcett, and Susan C. Beachy headlined “In a Nation Armed to the Teeth, These Tiny Missteps Led to Tragedy”:

The maintenance man in North Carolina had just arrived to fix damage from a leak. The teenager in Georgia was only looking for his girlfriend’s apartment. The cheerleader in Texas simply wanted to find her car in a dark parking lot after practice.

Each of them accidentally went to the wrong address or opened the wrong door — and each was shot. They had made innocent mistakes that became examples of the kind of deadly errors that can occur in a country bristling with guns, anger and paranoia, and where most states have empowered gun owners with new self-defense laws.

This week, the issue of “wrong address” shootings stirred protests and widespread outrage after a homeowner in Kansas City, Mo., shot a 16-year-old who rang the wrong doorbell. Days later, a 20-year-old woman in upstate New York was fatally shot after she and her friends turned into the wrong driveway. And then two cheerleaders in Texas were shot after one got into the wrong car in a dark parking lot.

But many other cases have attracted far less attention. In July 2021, a Tennessee man was charged with brandishing a handgun and firing it after two cable-company workers mistakenly crossed onto his land. Last June, a Virginia man was arrested after the authorities say he shot at three lost teenage siblings who had accidentally pulled onto his property.

“It’s shoot first, ask questions later,” said Justin Diepenbrock, who lives in Polk County, Fla., where the authorities say a father and son searching for what they thought was a burglar opened fire last year on a woman parking her car after working an overnight shift.

The catalyst? The neighbors charged in the shooting had spotted Mr. Diepenbrock on a doorbell camera leaving mistakenly delivered medication at their front door, according to court records.

No precise figures are available, but these shootings are relatively uncommon in a country with nearly 49,000 gun deaths in a year. But gun-control advocates say they are a stark illustration of how quickly America reaches for guns — and how tragic the results can be.

Each one of these incidents resulted from unique events. But activists and researchers say they stem from a convergence of bigger factors — increased fear of crime and an attendant surge in gun ownership, increasingly extreme political messaging on firearms, fearmongering in the media and marketing campaigns by the gun industry that portray the suburban front door as a fortified barrier against a violent world.

“The gun lobby markets firearms as something you need to defend yourself — hammers in search of nails,” said Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer and gun-violence activist who has sued gun manufacturers on behalf of the victims of mass shootings and their families.

National gun-rights groups remained relatively silent after the shooting in Kansas City, Mo., and many Republicans broadly supported the prosecutor’s decision to bring charges. When a reporter asked him about the case, Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican and outspoken defender of “stand your ground” laws, which allow people to use deadly force in confrontations, expressed support for prosecutors. He then quickly pivoted to the theme of lawlessness in big cities.

“I don’t think the problem is law-abiding gun owners,” Mr. Hawley said. “I think the problem is criminals who go and shoot people.”

The perception that crime, especially violent gun crime, has increased is not a manufactured myth. National murder rates have climbed by about a third since 2019, according to government data, even accounting for modest declines in fatal shootings over the past 18 months.

And some property crimes that declined or plateaued during the coronavirus pandemic have shot back up in recent months, tracking closely with the rise in inflation: Thefts and robberies in major cities increased by around 20 percent in the first half of 2022, after declining the previous two years, the Council on Criminal Justice found.

Gun purchases rose during the pandemic and the unrest and racial-justice protests after the murder of George Floyd. Nearly 20 percent of American households bought a gun from March 2020 to March 2022, and about 5 percent of Americans bought a gun for the first time, according to a survey from NORC at the University of Chicago.

At the same time, Republican states including Florida and Texas passed new laws allowing people to carry guns openly, or carry concealed weapons without a permit.

More than 30 states also have “stand your ground” laws. Some have recently strengthened their “castle doctrine” laws, making it more difficult to prosecute homeowners who claim self-defense in a shooting.

“People become paranoid and over-worried — and then comes an unannounced knock on their door,” said Mr. Lowy, founder of Global Action on Gun Violence, a gun-control group based in Washington.

Byron Castillo, 51, knows what it’s like to be the one making that unannounced knock.

On the morning of Jan. 30, 2020, Mr. Castillo said he was sent to a second-floor apartment in High Point, N.C., to repair and repaint damage from a leaking kitchen. He announced himself as the maintenance man and knocked three times. The tenant inside responded by opening the door and shooting Mr. Castillo in the stomach without a word of warning, he said.

He dragged himself to his truck and drove to the apartment complex office, where he collapsed on the floor to wait for an ambulance. He spent one month in the hospital and another five months recovering on his couch, trying to rebuild strength in his legs and cope with the pain in his chest, where surgeons had cut him open.

Mr. Castillo said he later learned that the repair job had been in a first-floor apartment.

The High Point Police Department said prosecutors declined to bring charges. In a 2020 statement reported by local news outlets, the police said that “through unfortunate circumstances, Mr. Castillo attempted to gain entry mistakenly into the wrong apartment,” and that the man who shot him thought he was a burglar.

Mr. Castillo still cannot believe it.

“I was with my brushes and rollers in my hand,” he said. “How would it be a threat for you? To kill you with a brush?”

More than three years later, Mr. Castillo is still making minimum weekly payments of $30 on his hospital bills, and still feels pressure in his chest along his surgical scar. On every new painting or repair job, he says he walks through empty houses shouting his arrival and checking each room to make sure nobody is waiting with a gun.

Prosecutors have brought charges in several of the “wrong address” shootings that have made news in recent years, in part because the victims clearly had no intention of provoking a conflict.

Kevin Monahan, 65, the upstate New York homeowner accused of killing Kaylin Gillis, has been charged with murder. Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old white homeowner in Kansas City, Mo., accused of wounding Ralph Yarl, who is Black, has been charged with assault and armed criminal action; the prosecutor said there was a “racial component” to the shooting.

The effect of self-defense laws protecting homeowners and gun owners is fiercely debated, with proponents arguing that their mere presence deters criminal behavior or civil disorder. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, recently invoked the state’s “stand your ground” law in asking the state pardon board to reverse the conviction of a man who claimed he killed a Black Lives Matter protester in 2020 because he felt threatened.

But several large-scale studies have suggested that the laws have few benefits, increase the likelihood of gun violence and might discriminate against minority groups, especially Black people.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports gun control, shootings in which white people shot Black people were nearly three times as likely to be found “justified” compared with cases where white people shot other white people.

A 2023 analysis of recent academic research by the nonpartisan RAND Corporation found no evidence that such laws had the deterrent effect that their sponsors claimed, and there was some indication, while not conclusive, that the laws might account for some increases in gun violence.

There are no reliable local or national statistics for the use of firearms in self-defense, and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, which studies crime data, found that weapons were actually more likely to be used in suicides, discharged accidentally, stolen or brandished in domestic disputes, than used to fend off an external attack.

The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups have long disputed such assessments, citing surveys that show far greater use of weapons for legitimate self-defense.

About a third of the roughly 16,700 gun owners surveyed in a study led by William English, a Georgetown University business school professor, said they had used their guns for self-defense, prompting Mr. English to estimate that as many as 1.6 million people in the country had defended themselves with a weapon that year.

In Atlanta, the parents of 19-year-old Omarian Banks said their son posed no threat on the March 2019 night that he was shot at the wrong apartment door.

It was past midnight, and Mr. Banks was tired after a shift at McDonald’s, his parents said. So when he was dropped off at his girlfriend’s apartment complex where every building looks nearly identical, he accidentally walked up to the wrong door and started knocking.

Mr. Banks tried to apologize for his mistake, but, according to the police and Mr. Banks’s girlfriend, the tenant inside the apartment, Darryl I. Bynes, told Mr. Banks, “Nah, you’re at the right house” and fatally shot Mr. Banks. Mr. Bynes, 32, is set to be tried for murder this summer.

The family said Mr. Banks had hoped to one day work as an electrician alongside his father and younger brother. Instead, his mother and father said they had spent the past days reliving their trauma after seeing the news of another young man, this one in Kansas City, Mo., shot after showing up to the wrong address.

“When are they going to learn?” Lisa Johnson-Banks, Mr. Banks’s mother, said. “I know people have a right to protect their dwellings. But take a minute. Because that’s somebody else’s child you’re going to take out.”

Jack Healy is a Phoenix-based national correspondent who focuses on the fast-changing politics and climate of the Southwest. He has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a graduate of the University of Missouri’s journalism school.

Glenn Thrush covers the Department of Justice. He joined The Times in 2017 after working for Politico, Newsday, Bloomberg News, the New York Daily News, the Birmingham Post-Herald and City Limits.

Eliza Fawcett is a reporter for the National desk and a member of the 2022-2023 New York Times fellowship class.

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