WILKES-BARRE — Norm Gavlick is part of a growing trend in Luzerne County — citizens taking advantage of their Second Amendment rights by arming themselves with handguns.
Gavlick, 55, of Kingston, said he carries his firearm almost everyday for protection.
“I do it to protect my family,” said Gavlick, owner of the GunHippo outdoor shop on Wyoming Avenue.
Two homicide cases from 2013 involved claims of self defense, which brings up the question — when can an everyday citizen legally defend themselves?
From 2009-13, the number of license-to-carry permits issued more than doubled in the county. A total of 7,325 permits were issued in 2013, according to Luzerne County Sheriff Brian Szumski.
Deadly force legalities
Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., a former district attorney and judge,said deadly force can be used when a citizen’s life or a third party’s life is in danger.
The factual scenario and surrounding circumstances of each incident are what Olszewski called critical aspects to prosecutors. Statements from the shooter, from the victim if he or she survived, witnesses and surveillance were some of the elements he said often factor into a case.
Forensic and ballistic evidence can also add to an already daunting case.
“When a defense lawyer is faced with so many different sources of information, it becomes difficult to handle them all individually then collectively,” Olszewski said. “It’s a rare set of circumstances when deadly force can be used.”
Olszewski said self-defense cases are likely to increase as more people are get a license-to-carry permit and a firearm.
State law further defines when deadly force can be used — against “serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force.”
Gov. Tom Corbett signed Pennsylvania Castle Doctrine into law in 2011, legislation that further polarized Second Amendment supporters and gun control advocates.
Referred to as the “stand your ground law,” it says a citizen who legally owns a firearm and is attacked in a place where he or she has a right to be “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and use force, including deadly force.”
Shira Goodman, executive director for CeaseFire PA — a statewide nonprofit that advocates for more stringent gun policies —takes issue with the new law.
“Traditionally … you have the duty to try to retreat before using deadly force,” Goodman said. “Why take away the duty to retreat?”
Local firearms instructor Robert DeMott did not think the 2011 law would cause problems. He made the argument that in some scenarios, retreating might not be an option.
“That’s not logical, to run and run and run and hide and hope you’re not found,” DeMott said. “It (Castle Doctrine) means that if you have a right to be somewhere … you have a right to defend yourself. That’s a God-given right.”
Attorney Peter Moses said the conversation about the Castle Doctrine has become more relevant since the Zimmerman case in Florida. He called the laws “convoluted” with many exceptions.
“The law is complicated,” Moses said. “The law puts a lot of requirements and complications” on the shooter.
Taking up arms
Aaron Sokirka celebrated his 21st birthday at the courthouse getting his license-to-carry permit. Sokirka, 30, of Wyoming, has had a permit ever since.
“I’m a firm believer in I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it,” Sokirka said.
Szumski is not surprised by the increase of firearm sales and the increase of permits being issued.
“I can understand it,” said Szumski said. He attributed it to the increase in issued permits to a public fear of increased firearm legislation, as well as a violent 2013. “I think a lot of it came from that there were so many homicides in Luzerne County.”
Attorney Olszewski also was not surprised by the increase of residents getting permits, and also attributed the increase to the rising crime rate.
“When you see the type of crime rates that we have in Luzerne County … Wilkes-Barre city is a dangerous place,” he said.
Moses said that due to the increase in violence, many in society are more wary of becoming crime victims. He said it was vital that people do not overreact with the use of deadly force.
“As much as we want to be conscious of that (crime) … we also have to remember that we can’t be vigilantes,” Moses said.
Nimrod Haven Gun Shop owner Joe Lasecki estimated that handguns are sold about 80 percent of the time. He attributed that estimation with the increase of crime in the area.
“With the increased crime rate, you obviously have more people looking to defend themselves,” Lasecki said.
When asked about who his customers at the Hanover Township shop tend to be, he said it’s a cross-section of the local population. That includes people buying a first handgun to those looking for a second or third.
Sokirka said women customers have doubled in the last year at GunHippo. “They’re not relying on the husbands and the boyfriends anymore,” he said.
Lasecki said he has about 600 guns on hand, ranging from hunting rifles and shotguns to handguns. When a customer buys a gun, federal paperwork has to be filled out, and Lasecki calls in a background check with the Pennsylvania State Police through the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS).
In 2012, the Pennsylvania State Police Annual Firearms Report show 1,028,113 PICS checks were initiated — 589,167 were approved immediately, and the overall approval rate was 92 percent. Lasecki said he has about one or two customers a week that are denied because of the background check.
Lasecki does not think that the recent uptick in sales is going to go away anytime soon.
“I don’t foresee it getting any better,” he said. “There’s still a large market of people who don’t have one, and the more and more people that get them inspire other people to buy them.”
An educated defense
Lasecki said he often refers first-time buyers to classes taught by DeMott. DeMott, 69, of Hunlock Creek, is a certified firearms instructor with Dynamic Force Institute (DFI). He is also a certified instructor and range safety officer with the National Rifle Association.
DeMott has been teaching classes for 25 years. While Lasecki has seen an increase in handgun sales, DeMott has also seen an increase in the popularity of his classes.
“I think people are becoming more informed about their responsibility for their own safety,” he said, noting that the national 911 response time is 8 minutes. ”Eight minutes is the rest of your life when seconds count.”
His most popular class is one that covers shooting techniques, the law and when deadly force can be used. The seven-hour course gives students an overview of the functions and mechanics of different handguns.
It is also a live course, giving students the opportunity to fire live rounds in a controlled setting. DeMott said he usually has a maximum class size of four so he can give each student individual attention.
“Going to a gun shop, picking a gun out of a case after handling it is no indication if you can operate it properly,” DeMott said. ‘That live-fire experience is really critical in being able to make an intelligent, informed decision.”
DeMott also walks students through self defense law, the Castle Doctrine and when deadly force may or may not be appropriate. He said an important aspect of the class is that students “understand that deadly force response is legal, but not always correct or acceptable.”
State law does not mandate that handgun owners undergo training. That is something that Goodman, of CeaseFire PA, would like to see changed.
“I would feel more comfortable,” Goodman said pertaining to potential laws requiring training. “I think those kinds of things would have to be drafted very carefully.”
Olszewski also stressed the need for education for carriers, including knowledge of a firearm’s mechanics, proper technique and the laws. An NRA member for approximately 30 years, he said the organization offers a variety of courses.
“Whether or not the legislature wants to pass laws mandating the courses is a separate issue,” he said. “Certainly, taking the course is a reasonable and prudent thing to do.”