Much of the National Rifle Association’s current agenda in federal and state legislatures is aimed at expanding Americans’ ability to employ lethal force with a firearm in self-defense, which they assert is a “fundamental, God-given right.” This agenda includes weakening the requirements to obtain a concealed handgun permit, expanding the number of places (public and private) where concealed handguns can be carried, and enacting “Shoot First” laws that remove an individual’s duty to retreat from potentially violent confrontations. “When seconds count, the police are minutes away,” is the mantra frequently heard from self-defense proponents in the gun “rights” community.
When you allow and encourage untrained individuals to make unilateral decisions in heated situations involving firearms, however, the rule of law is weakened and there is a heightened potential for accidents and unnecessary violence. Last summer, two would-be vigilantes in Utah learned this lesson the hard way, and the result was a tragedy that has devastated two families and divided a community.
During the summer of 2009, there had been a string of car burglaries and mailbox thefts in the Bluffdale, Utah community of Parry Farms near Salt Lake City. Reginald Campos, 43 (pictured above), and his family had been the victims of several mail thefts. In addition, late at night, someone had broken into his garage, forced open three cars, and stole some of the family’s credit cards. The police were contacted.
Another resident in the community, David Serbeck, 37, had warned neighbors of the thefts and organized a community watch group. On July 21, 2009, Serbeck, a former army sniper, and Troy Peterson, president of the local homeowners’ association, drove through the neighborhood looking for criminal activity after being given photos of suspicious cars by a friend in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Serbeck, who holds a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Utah, brought a loaded handgun with him.
At one point in the night, the men almost hit two girls walking in the street and stopped them to ask some questions. The girls continued on to a friend’s house, picked up two others friends, and started driving to one of their houses. When they saw Serbeck’s SUV again, they thought they were being followed. In reality, they were—their car matched one of the photos Serbeck and Peterson had.
One of the girls was the daughter of Reginald Campos. She called her father and he got in his car to find the girls. After locating them, he escorted them back to his house. Then Campos and his daughter went back out to find the SUV Serbeck was driving. Campos brought a loaded handgun with him. Although Campos does not have a permit to carry a concealed handgun, Utah law allows anyone age 18 or over to legally carry a handgun in their car without any formal safety training.
According to Serbeck, Campos sped his own SUV in front of Serbeck’s vehicle and “slammed on [the] brakes, forcing him to stop.” Campos then exited his vehicle with his handgun drawn and ordered Serbeck to put his hands up. Serbeck states he got out of his SUV holding his handgun upside down, by the barrel. He then placed the gun on the ground and kicked it away. Campos then fired two shots at Serbeck, striking him once and damaging his spinal cord. Peterson, who remained in Serbeck’s car, corroborated this account. Detective Paul Nielson of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported that, “Serbeck’s firearm was on the ground when officers arrived [at the scene], and…had the safety lock on.”
Serbeck is now paralyzed from the chest down and Campos has been charged with attempted murder. He is claiming self-defense, despite Serbeck and Peterson’s statements. Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Alicia Cook sees things Serbeck’s way. “We determined that there was no reason to use deadly force in this situation,” she said. “There is just simply not a justification for that shooting.”
Campos’ attorney, Greg Skordas, blamed a gun culture run amok in Utah. “If you and I jumped out of our cars [unarmed], we shove each other, maybe walk away embarrassed. But they had to make a decision,” he stated.
Levi Hughes, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Deputy, agreed that the presence of firearms turned what should have been at worst a fistfight into a tragedy. “If you have a gun, sometimes people will feel more empowered. Problem is they don’t have the training, knowledge or experience to handle a confrontation that would require a gun,” he said. The Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office stopped sponsoring mobile patrol programs about ten years ago after patrol members were involved in a similar incident involving a car chase and shooting.
The Sheriff’s Office does, however, sponsor neighborhood watches. “We come to [residents’] homes. We talk to them about the things they need to watch out for, things they need to do to protect themselves.” But residents are not encouraged to become vigilantes. Officers tell them, "Don't take firearms with you and don't get involved. You don't stop people and interview them, don't question people you think might be involved in a crime. Leave that to law enforcement.”
To Hughes, the Bluffdale shooting should be a clear warning to other would-be vigilantes: “This is an example of what’s happened before and could happen to you if you take the law into your own hands.”
In one final tragic irony, federal authorities are close to indicting four suspects for the thefts at Parry Farms. Authorities credited the information given to them before the shooting by Reginald Campos with helping them crack the case.