June 28, 2008, was a defining moment in my life. It was the day I shot and killed a man in the defense of my life and the lives of others. We all have defining moments. They might not be as tragic as taking another man's life, but they are events that change the way we look at things -- or even, perhaps, how we live our lives.
Before that muggy Saturday evening in June, I would have said my defining moments were many: graduating from high school; enlisting in the Army; getting married; having children; getting run over by a tow truck; and especially, meeting my fiancée, Maria. All of these events, and more, have happened in my life and changed me.
On June 28, only two days after the Supreme Court announced its 5-4 ruling that Washington, D.C., citizens have the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the Constitution, I found myself standing in a pool of blood in York, from a man I had just shot. It was not my intent that evening to test the Second Amendment or kill somebody, but events unfolded to make it necessary for me to draw my weapon to defend myself and others.
My fiancée Maria and I had spent the day showing real estate investors our investment properties in York. We were driving to nearby Hanover to visit my mother when we came across what looked like a rear-end traffic accident.
Instead, a man, Douglas Need, had been driving recklessly when he swerved in front of a car and was hit in the rear. In a fit of road rage, he stormed out of his car, went back to two young women and a baby in the car that hit his, reached through the driver's window and started beating the driver very violently. She was able to break free and drive her car to the only place she could go -- the parking lot next to the street. Need ran back to his car, squealed his tires into the parking lot and looked as though he was going to broadside the women's car with them still inside.
At the last moment, he swerved his car around and blocked hers from going anywhere. I pulled into the parking lot, got out of the car and yelled at Need to leave the women alone while Need's passenger was in the parking lot. My gun was still holstered by my side. The woman got out of her car and escaped into the store. He followed but only moments later exited the store back into the parking lot. Both Need and the man with him were uncontrollably enraged and seemed deranged past the point of caring who they hurt.
As they continued to threaten that they had guns and were going to kill people, for some unknown reason Need ran to the driver's side door of my car and started pounding on the window, shouting at my fiancée who was inside the car with the engine running. Fearing that Maria's life was in danger because of his previous death threats, that's when I drew my weapon. I ordered Need to step away from my car, which he did. He then returned to the center of the parking lot, according to witnesses, and continued with threats and deranged behavior.
I went to my car and stood at the driver's side door. Need turned back to me and started coming at me with his arms waving and shouting "just shoot me." I ordered him to stay back, but he kept coming. Then, when he was about four or five feet from me, he put his hand into his pants pocket, and that is when I fired my first shot into his left thigh. It didn't stop him from coming at me. He grabbed my shirt, ripped off the top button and grabbed my right arm. That's when I shot him the second time point-blank into his thigh. I was told later that the bullets had severed his femoral artery and he had bled to death at York Hospital. I was truly sorry he died, but knew I had made the right decisions.
There is an aftermath of emotions and events that follows even the justifiable taking of a life. Being taken in handcuffs to the police station is traumatic. Waiting for three weeks to find out the district attorney's ruling on your case is also something not easily endured. Even knowing the truth was on my side with several witnesses backing my testimony, it is still unnerving.
There's a feeling that
everything in your life needs to be put on hold. You feel remorse over what happened and second-guess yourself as the entire scenario is played over and over again in your head. The question of "what would I do if I actually needed to use my gun" is answered. There's anger at the perpetrator for compelling the use of deadly force, and at times yourself for the realization of your capacity to use deadly force. Lastly, there is the fear that your loved ones and friends will not trust your judgment in needing to protect yourself and others from grave harm.
Our brave soldiers in the Middle East seem to be expected to somehow handle the killing of others better that we "regular citizens." We expect that since they kill enemies of the United States it somehow makes the taking of a life more palatable. However, killing another human being is not something to be taken lightly, no matter how corrupt or evil the person might be. What gives us the strength to deal with what we've done, whether soldier or civilian, is the understanding of the greater good we performed by our actions. We were responsible for the safety and welfare of other innocent lives. This is comforting.
Criticism has come from both sides of the gun control issue with Second Amendment advocates saying I should have shot to kill him in the first place. People not in favor of the individual right to bear arms have both criticized me for stopping to help the women in distress and in using my weapon to defend myself and others.
Online commentator "Computer Steve" responded to a newspaper article saying, "His concealed weapons permit should be revoked. You cannot just intervene on behalf of someone else." He went on to say, "I witness crimes and call 911 on a weekly basis and there is nothing I can do but watch the crime take place and relay the information to 911. If I had known that I was able to intervene I could have stopped a violent sexual assault in front of the YMCA on Tuesday evening. So what's the law? Are we intervening on our own now or what?"
Another online respondent, "Forgot to Mention," implied that the women deserved what they got by becoming involved in a road rage encounter. This respondent commented, "I would never engage in road rage or pull over to fight with someone who did. Why did that women (woman) place herself and her passengers in such a dangerous situation?"
Nothing could be more ludicrous, given the facts and the innocence of the women who were victimized.
In the Supreme Court's majority decision, the court said, "It is not the responsibility of the police to protect the individual, but society as a whole." I take this to mean that any American who witnesses the wrongdoing of an innocent has the lawful right to intervene on behalf of that victim. So how can people like "Computer Steve" and "Forgot to Mention" possibly live with themselves knowing they could allow heinous crimes to take place before their very eyes and just sit and watch without intervention?
This does not mean I am advocating vigilantism and want all Americans to rush out and purchase weapons. A great deal of responsibility comes with owning and carrying a gun.
The York Daily Record editorial dated July 24 posted the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act laws regarding the justifiable and non-justifiable use of firearms by civilians. Not only should gun owners know and understand these laws, they should have the motivation and desire to practice with their weapon on a frequent basis to become familiar and proficient in its use. Even then, to go out looking for trouble just because you have a firearm is dangerous and irresponsible.
In my almost 51 years on this earth, never have I come across a situation as violent as the one on June 28 and hopefully, I never will again. When I was assigned to the 709th Military Police Battalion in Frankfurt, Germany, I would occasionally observe the MPs perform their duties on patrol. The most I saw in the form of violence was an occasional bar brawl or domestic violence situation between a husband and wife. But nothing had ever escalated to the point where deadly force was needed. However, the MPs on the military installations had a similar problem to cops in the U.S. Response times were delayed for lack of staffing and the sheer numbers of people they had to police.
Our police officers here at home are taxed to their limit. We complain that there is never a police officer around when we need one and joke how you can always find a cop at the doughnut shop, but fail to realize that many communities are under-staffed with officers. In York alone, there are only about 100 officers to police a city with a 42,000 population. As with other communities in the state, some of its officers are National Guard or Reserve members and have been deployed to the Middle East. This makes it even more difficult because those officers are guaranteed their jobs upon return from military service and cannot be replaced.
However, it will never be possible for a police officer to be immediately available in every instance that someone is in danger or in need of help. I believe that it is our personal responsibility to care for each other as Americans. A person doesn't have to own a gun to help an elderly man hit by a car lying in the middle of the street while cars swerve to miss him and pedestrians stand on the sidewalk and stare at him like he was road kill. That seems heartless to me, and we Americans are not a heartless people.
I stepped into a dangerous situation to protect the lives of two young women, a baby and my fiancée, and some have said that makes me a hero. I'm not sure what I did was heroic. I did what I did for the same reason other Americans do what they do when any tragedy takes place - it is the right thing to do, we step forward and rise to the occasion and if that's heroic - then OK. Our military men and women, our police officers and firefighters, however, demonstrate this every day and for that we should truly be thankful because they are heroes.
There has been an outpouring of responses that have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. On the other side are people who seem to have a belief that no private citizen should carry or use a gun. One responder to my story, with the screen name "He is no Saint," claims to know me and has accused me of murdering someone's son. This person says, "If Mr. Fentiman would have never stopped, a bystander or the police would have brought justice to that man."
I was the bystander who stopped to help. If I had not, and everyone had waited for the police, what would have been the cost to Need's victim? I did not intervene with my gun waving in the air. I pulled it only when my fiancée was directly threatened. Furthermore, it was not my intent and not the job of the police to have "brought justice to that man." Punishment for crimes is for the court system and a judge.
"He is no Saint" writes without taking into consideration the exact sequence of events that evening. Apparently, they also mistakenly believe I would not have stopped if I had no gun. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Anti-gun advocates argue that the more guns off the streets, the fewer deaths by gun fire. Somehow they believe that if a legally permitted gun carrier flees from a life-threatening situation with an out-of-control perpetrator this will defuse the danger and stop the criminal from causing harm to others. The problem with this argument is it assumes the criminal element will realize their mistakes, repent and give up their guns during one of the many amnesty gun turn-ins cities have in an effort to reduce gun-related crimes.
In reality, what usually happens is the innocent become victims of gun crimes and the perpetrator isn't caught, or if he is, only goes to jail while the victim lives for the rest of his or her life with the consequences of the crime. This imbalance of justice should not be acceptable to any American.
I believe that those of us who grew up in the'60s and'70s have been lax in protecting each other and have passed this attitude on to our children. Some of us developed this complacent attitude that someone else, especially the government, is responsible for supporting us or solving our problems. But they are not.
The fact is that guns in the hands of good people can help deter the crimes of bad people. Good people with legal gun permits do not suddenly turn into villains and go on killing sprees because the gun feels so good in their hands. They also don't holster their weapons and cruise the streets looking for bad guys. They are hard-working Americans who either carry because of their exposure to the criminal element from their jobs, or they keep a gun in their house to protect their families.
For me, my job exposes me to a criminal element that can be out of control. I carry to protect myself, my fiancée and my customers from the squatters who might be drug addicts or dealers working out of the vacant properties we buy in York, Harrisburg and Reading. To ignore this potential threat would be irresponsible to the people I love, honor and care about.
People might ask why we choose sometimes dangerous inner-city areas to buy distressed properties to renovate. In addition to being a source of investment income, transforming derelict houses into comfortable and safe homes has a tremendously positive impact on the many good people who live in these communities. We love the cities where we work and are proud of what we do to make them better.
I never thought I would be threatened in a situation outside my job or need to come to the aid of someone else being threatened. However, I would have been devastated had I awakened the next morning and read in the newspaper, or watched the television news, to see that one of those young women had been beaten and killed by Mr. Need because I chose to drive by and not intervene.
Bad people make poor choices and do bad things. The guns and other weapons of bad people have typically been obtained illegally and will most likely be used to commit crimes. We know what a weapon in a criminal's hands will do. As long as there are bad people, no gun control law will prevent criminals from obtaining all the guns they desire.
The America we live in today is not the same country my father and mother experienced. Dad was a World War II veteran and recipient of two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, and Mom was a "Rosie the Riveter" who built ships in Long Beach, Calif., during the war. They were a generation that helped each other. They were neighbors who watched out for the interests of their neighbors. A large part of the population was involved in WWII, and they had to depend upon each other for their very survival. Sometimes the only thing these military men and women had in common was the fact that they were Americans. Yet they cared for each other.
We live in a dangerous society where the criminal element seems to have no regard for human life, let alone the ability to leave people alone. We need to take a more courageous attitude toward the safety and welfare of our fellow law-abiding citizens and teach our children to have the same values. And if it is deemed that carrying a firearm is necessary to protect ourselves and others - then so be it.
America's greatness won't fall because we fight enemies who commit atrocities. Our greatness will end if we tolerate the atrocities of our own against ourselves. Decay starts from within - and so does the cure.
Brian Fentiman lives in Allentown.
Fred William Minnich, 38, of the first block of Kings Arms at Waterford in Springettsbury Township, was charged with simple assault, disorderly conduct by engaging in a fight and public drunkenness. He had been a passenger in a car involved in a road rage encounter June 28 in York.
Douglas Allen Need of Hellam Township was shot and killed by Brian Fentiman, 50, of Allentown, during the encounter.
The York County District Attorney ruled the shooting justifiable.
Minnich remains free on his own recognizance pending his Sept. 5 arraignment in York County Court.
ON THE WEB
Know your rights and responsibilities as a gun owner under state law: Read the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act at www.acslpa.org/pa_uniform_firearms_act.htm.