A businessman shot and killed two thieves who had just robbed him of ¢990,000 (about $1,833) as they allegedly fired on him while trying to speed away on their motorcycles in La Uruca, on the northwest side of San José earlier this month.
A passing messenger pulled out his gun and joined in.
Last week, a 12-year-old girl shot and killed a 31-year-old man who tried to rape her in the Caribbean province of Limón. He fled, but only made it 50 meters from the house before collapsing in front of a church.
The businessman has already been cleared in the shooting. Given the wide leeway granted by Costa Rican law, the girl, too, will likely be found to have been as justified in killing her attacker.
According to Paul Chaves, a private legal consultant, three requirements must be met for a victim to use deadly force: The first is that there be an imminent attack without provocation; second, no other option is available to prevent the attack; and third, the victim does not employ excessive force against the attacker.
It is legal to act in defense of yourself, or in the defense of another person in imminent danger.
But it is illegal to fire on someone if they’re running away from you.
The problem often arises when goods are involved, but not a threat to anyone’s person, says Chaves. The businessman, for example, would have been in a very different situation had the thieves not fired first, as witnesses have claimed, as he ran after them and his money.
Despite the legal delicacy of such cases, says Chaves, “In most cases, even the police are happy that these criminals are taken out. They are going to have sympathy for the circumstances.”
The businessman, his partner who was with him in the car at the time and the passing messenger have all been cleared of charges, primarily, said the presiding judge, because the thieves allegedly fired first but also because both thieves had prior criminal records.
The number of Ticos arming themselves is on the rise. Last year, 11,740 guns were registered, a 40 percent increase over the annual rate 10 years ago. Almost 1,300 guns are being registered every month in Costa Rica, up significantly from just under 1,000 per month last year, says William Hidalgo, Public Security Ministry armament administrator.
Roughly two-thirds are for government use, with the majority of the private guns are registered to private security firms.
Hidalgo says the trend is worrisome, and he cautions citizens against arming themselves. Many people don’t realize that bringing a gun into the home can put others at risk, he says. “The truth is that a gun isn’t a solution,” says Hidalgo.
Five Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) officers who spoke with The Tico Times disagree. The five, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of disciplinary action, say the deteriorating crime situation makes it understandable.
“The (security) situation obliges citizens to arm themselves and take the law into their own hands,” says one.
What the law addresses in theory is “another reality” from the situation on the streets, they say. All five agents say they feel unsafe walking the streets.
They share Hidalgo’s concern that too many people are buying their own arms without learning how to using them, much less registering the weapons, but their need to be able to protect themselves trumps the possibility of an accident.
Three out of the five OIJ agents own guns personally. They say they use them regularly – as recently as two weeks ago – against criminals, sometimes on duty, sometimes as citizens.
One of the officers bounces his knee throughout the interview. Two years ago, he says, he shot and killed a 19-year-old in the act of robbing someone. But the nervous twitch belies his surety on the subject.
Does he feel OK with what happened? “Of course.”
Would he be able to using a gun on someone again?
“Of course. A gun is a defense mechanism.”