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In Billings, an armed vigilante drives hard bargain at Penney's



Like flood insurance or a home defibrillator kit, a handgun is one of those products you buy hoping never to use. Rifles are for hunting. Shotguns are for shooting trap and, if you insist, skeet. But a handgun is pretty much exclusively for shooting people. Even if you just enjoy going down to the firing range and squeezing off a few rounds, the targets are shaped like men.

I mention this because a Billings resident suffered the handgun owner's worst nightmare last month, when he was forced to use his weapon in self defense. Former Marine James Newman opened fire on a Buick fleeing the parking lot of Rimrock Mall after he attempted to make a citizen's arrest for shoplifting. I quote the Billings Gazette's description of video from the event:

"The video starts on Newman standing behind a vehicle in the Rimrock Mall parking lot, confronting two suspected shoplifters as they sit in their vehicle. Boxed into a parking space but wanting to escape, the suspect yells to Newman from the driver's seat. Newman responds with a warning. 'If you hit me now, I will [expletive] open fire,' he yells back. He's legally and openly carrying a handgun."

The police questioned Newman and then released him at the scene. The Gazette makes it clear who the criminals were in this altercation, not only specifying that he was "legally and openly" carrying his gun but also referring to the people he shot at as suspects. It is unclear whether they were suspected by the police or only by the public-spirited citizen who brought his gun to the mall and subsequently opened fire while trying to arrest his fellow citizens for shoplifting.

The important thing is that he survived. One shudders to imagine what might have happened had Newman not been carrying his gun. Probably, the people he attempted to detain for shoplifting would have backed over him, turned wide to also kill whoever was videotaping the event—whether to hide their identities or for the pure joy of killing, we cannot know—and then slewed across the gore into traffic, continuing their spree of shoplifting and murder. All this carnage was prevented, thanks to Newman's lawful use of his gun for self-defense.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying he acted entirely without fault. He did fire several shots across a mall parking lot and into traffic. That was risky, but fortunately Newman is a trained and responsible gun owner. As such, he did not shoot any bystanders while deploying deadly force in his capacity as a private citizen enforcing misdemeanor statutes.

  • photo by Chad Harder

But while his commitment to order is as impeccable as his judgment, I must find fault with his marksmanship. If only Newman had been a little more accurate, he might have shot one of the suspects in the back of the head—thus saving the state a costly manhunt, to say nothing of the expenses of their trial and eventual execution for shoplifting. One imagines the pride he would have felt after the coroner arrived, the bodies were carted away, and the merchandise cleaned and returned to JC Penney.

Hindsight is 20/20, though, and we cannot expect Newman to do everything right. He is only a private citizen and not a trained police officer. Asking him to enforce the law with perfect accuracy is too much. In moments like these, when people are looking for someone to blame, it's important to remember that Newman is just one of Montana's many responsible gun owners—an ordinary man who happened to legally and openly carry his handgun to the mall on the same day he happened to see someone he needed to arrest, as a citizen, for committing a crime.

This country needs more citizens like Newman. Violent crime—which does not include shoplifting, but probably should—has reached its lowest level in 50 years. I bet we could get it down to zero if we all strapped handguns to our waists and went out into the streets to arrest one another. A utopian peace would spread across the land. If only all private citizens had the courage to hold one another at gunpoint for committing misdemeanors, including but not limited to loitering and public intoxication, America might finally feel free.

Until then, all we can do is remember the brave example of James Newman and arrange our gun laws accordingly. After all, isn't protecting the right to bear arms a little bit like loss prevention at JC Penney? You can't just leave it to the authorities. Every citizen must take it into his—or her, but generally his—own hands. And probably some people will have to get killed along the way.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and private administration of the death penalty at


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