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HAZELWOOD --The threat emerged here in the evening darkness, as John Wolf was out for a walk on the fringe of his working-class neighborhood. The threat was a suspicious man, also on foot, coming right at him.
Wolf crossed the street, breathed easier and kept going. Soon enough, though, the same man sneaked behind Wolf and stuck a .38 caliber revolver into his neck.
"He must have told me he was going to kill me 10 times," said Wolf, 59.
Unbeknownst to the robber, Wolf had his own .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol hidden under a loose hanging shirt. And so there, on May 4, 2010, near the 1300 block of Eagles Way Court, Wolf had a decision before him that only a fraction of gun owners make.
For all the attention that is placed on the nation's estimated 300 million firearms, most guns rest in cases, drawers and safes. Few are holstered. Few get used to actually stop a threat. Even armed soldiers and police officers often go entire careers without firing a shot on duty.
But Wolf is the kind of avid gun collector who had worked through in his head how he might react in exactly this situation. Even so, in that moment, he wondered.
Would he cower? Could he regain control quick enough? Was it worth the risk? Or would he get shot in the back walking away if he went along with the robbery?
Wolf began by playing along. He handed over his wallet. Then he asked if he could have his license back. The distraction gave Wolf the precious split second in a stick-up he needed to pull his own weapon, rack a round into the chamber and tell the robber to drop it.
But the surprised robber raised his own gun back up, said Wolf, who then fired a "wall of bullets" at the man. Emptying his clip, Wolf punched a spare clip into the grip and kept the gun leveled. He said the muzzle flashes had momentarily blinded him and he didn't know if he'd hit the man.
The robber fell down, got up and crossed the street. He stumbled down a grass embankment and collapsed. His yelling soon calmed to silence.
"That's when it hit me ... that I'd actually killed somebody," Wolf said.
As the debate over gun control rages across the nation -- with a volley of arguments over crime, government intrusion and the Constitution -- Wolf knows the issue with a rare intimacy.
For many, self-defense is the leading argument for gun ownership rights. It's also the primary motivation for keeping a firearm, now surpassing even hunting, according to a recent Pew survey.
For Wolf, and a select few others, self-defense is an act they have performed with point-blank graphic reality.
Guns don't just "save lives." He believes one actually saved his life.
Data on the incidents of guns' being used in self-defense vary widely from study to study. But only a tiny sliver of people use guns to kill someone engaged in a felony. The FBI counted just 230 such cases of justifiable homicide in 2010.
Wolf is among a small sampling of people interviewed by the Post-Dispatch who have used firearms effectively to defend themselves or their property in incidents in the St. Louis region.
The circumstances varied. Some involved fatalities, others did not.
Neither the courts nor police doubt they were justified in firing. All used guns for arguably their best and most justifiable purpose.
And yet, though cleared by police, they carry with them a mix of affirmation and regret. Some, like Wolf, are certain of their decision but still break down speaking about it.
All recount the incidents in stark hues of good and evil, of peacemakers, and of God.
And all of them want to forget, but never will.
A SISTER ACTS
Debi Keeney, 55, of Highland, Ill., doesn't have second thoughts. She says that if you have a gun, you have to make a decision you are willing to use it. And she made that decision a long time ago.
A daddy's girl growing up, her father taught her not to be afraid of firearms, but to respect them.
"No gun kills anybody," she said. "Until I pick it up, it's the same difference as a fork laying there."
About 3:30 a.m. Feb. 10, she gripped her five-shot derringer revolver and pointed it at a man she said barged through the front door demanding money.
The man threw her across the room and choked her sister, Donna Carlyle, 47, to keep her from calling police.
"I didn't want to shoot anybody," Keeney said. "If he would have walked out the door, we would have called 911."
She warned him, she said, but the first shot didn't faze him anyway.
Then she took aim at his back -- a clean shot that wouldn't put her sister in harm's way. She warned him again. After that shot, she said, he turned and came after her.
"I thought I was going to have to shoot him a third time, then his legs buckled," she said.
The man flailed on the living room floor. He yelled out, asking how could she have shot him. He spouted that he came from a large family, had a daughter and was going to sue.
Keeney and her sister, who live in an apartment community for seniors and people with disabilities, said they had never seen the man until he pushed through the door.
Authorities rushed the man, identified as Joshua Jewell, 33, of Troy, Ill., to a hospital. He was later charged with one count of home invasion.
"I get angry at the man for putting me in that situation," Keeney said. "I want to make sure he doesn't walk away from this."
And he won't. The shooting paralyzed Jewell.
His mother, Phyllis Muench, has questions about the attack but said her son struggled with alcohol and drugs. Now he's on scores of medications and trying to relearn basic bodily functions.
"Hopefully, he will turn his life around," said Muench, who lost another son in a car wreck. "This son has a second chance. He has a chance to save addicts like he was."
The sisters are resolute in their act of defense. But they shook their heads at the senselessness of the crime. They live on a fixed income and rarely have cash, other than laundry money.
"This is what he would have ended up with," said Carlyle, holding up a roll of quarters.
"Luckily, he didn't die," her sister added.
For other shooters, the rearview perspective is less clear.
They go through the events over and over, wondering what they could have done better. They also fear a worse outcome.
One shooter, a public school teacher who killed a 39-year-old intruder, wouldn't do it again and would instead invest more in alarm systems and precautions.
That shooter, who did not wish to be named, was fed up with a rash of burglaries at a south St. Louis home he was rehabbing. New plumbing was stolen shortly after being installed, as well as several other items. Wires were ripped from the walls. Metal had been taken from air conditioners.
A former Marine, the shooter camped out to prevent another intrusion. That night he shot Rico Kemp, a homeless drifter, in the chest with a bolt action rifle. Police found Kemp in the middle of the kitchen floor near the rear doorway. He had a crack pipe on him and was unarmed, according to a police report.
Kemp, 39, had a drug problem so severe his family rested easier when he was locked up. His father thought he'd eventually lose his son to the streets. He did, early in the morning of Nov. 23, 2011.
"Sleeping in vacant houses, he just ended up in the wrong house," said Charlie Kemp, 64, of Moline Acres.
Two years after the incident, the shooter thinks about all the different scenarios that could have happened. He is relieved it wasn't one of his students.
And he has doubt.
Maybe he should have held Kemp at gunpoint, but at the time he wondered if there was a second guy, or more. He said he was scared, as if he were in a war zone.
"Most of the time I am over this," he said, breaking down at times during an interview.
Shortly after the incident, his mother's house in Jennings was broken into, which wasn't the first time. He didn't take the same action. A fire didn't rage inside him.
"It was more of a slump," he said. "I was pretty sure I didn't want to do that again because of the toll it took on me."
Wolf said his only regret was that he had let his guard down long enough to get sneaked up on.
When police showed up in Hazelwood, the man who attacked Wolf was dead on the grass, shot two times through the back. The assailant's finger was resting on the trigger of a rusted chrome revolver, records show. One cartridge was spent; three rounds appeared to have misfired.
Wolf's wallet lay nearby. It held $45 and a concealed carry permit.
Officials cleared the shooting. But Wolf said police told him he'd made two mistakes.
One: he should have had a bullet in the chamber, ready to fire immediately.
Two: hollow-point bullets have better knock-down power than the harder ball ammo he'd used.
The assailant was Christopher Holland Jr., 20, a 6-foot-4 former tight end at Soldan High School who had "ST. LOUIS" tattooed on his chest. His family called him "Little Chris."
A year or so before, he'd been awarded an annuity for growing up in an apartment with lead contamination. His father said his son spent the windfall, though, and was broke until another payment was due. He said he'd been running with a few guys known for robbing people.
Still, his father says he wishes his son, who had two daughters, would have only been injured, or held until police arrived.
"He could have shot my son in the arm or in the leg," said Christopher Holland Sr. "I'd rather see my son in jail right now."
The father said he left the incident in God's hands and now, several times a week, he drives past the scene of his son's death and honks.
"I say, 'Hey, Little Chris,' just to let him know I haven't forgotten him."
Wolf recalled a TV interview with the assailant's father.
"Sorry," Wolf said, "but you have a creep for a son, there's nothing you can do about it."
Right after the shooting, all kinds of thoughts raced through Wolf's mind. They still do. He is grateful he is the one standing. At the same time, the fear of what could have happened overwhelms him.
He thinks of his children's being left without a father.
He ponders faith.
"I don't want to get all holy or anything, but it seemed so automatic," he said. "I could have missed. He could have got me. Everything that night went in my favor for some reason."
Months and even years after they fired weapons, those interviewed say they are more aware of their surroundings. They are jumpier than they were before. They wake up at night at strange noises.
They have been robbed of their peace of mind.
For the sisters, two months after the shooting was cleared, they are scared to go out in front of their apartments at night. When one does, the other has 911 already dialed, ready to go.
"It has changed my life tremendously," said Keeney, who was recently hospitalized several days for a triple hernia.
For the teacher who fired at the home intruder, he said he now had a different way of fighting back. When he has a problem with a tough student, he evokes Kemp, who he said perhaps was the result of societal failure, and the product of a similar environment.
He said Kemp was with him all the time, that it was his responsibility to think about and talk to Kemp.
"I ask for help from him," the teacher said of the man he killed. "And I don't know what that means."
He recently got his rifle back from police. Now, on the table in the same kitchen, lay a cleaning set for the weapon. He has another firearm, but he no longer wants this one.
He planned on selling it.
"Maybe it brings me back too much," he said.
Wolf couldn't eat for nearly a week after the Hazelwood shooting. He couldn't sleep. He went to counseling.
A gun instructor gave him a copy of the book "On Killing, the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society," which helped some.
But he doesn't regret the incident. He doesn't remember the assailant's name.
Though Wolf said he didn't take walks in the dark anymore, he added night sights to his Glock. He moved to Maryland Heights. Answering the front door on a recent day, he held the weapon close and barely opened the door.
Inside, his living room is reminiscent of a cattle drive camp. There's a set of longhorns on the wall. Though he doesn't hunt, there's a buck mount. There's a decorative chuck wagon coffee pot on a stove, a bow and quiver.
He has many guns. His father gave him a .22 rifle when he was a teenager. Like many others, he bought a .44 magnum revolver after the "Dirty Harry" movies came out in the 1970s. Now his arsenal ranges from military firearms from around the world to a 1,000-pound practice bomb. He describes one Russian gun, of which he has several, as "beautiful."
He has traveled to schools with his collection. He's been in parades and sold inert hand grenades and fake .50 caliber bullets at gun shows.
Wolf is a regular at Ultimate Defense shooting range in St. Peters.
He can quickly grow to tears and anger just thinking of not being able to defend himself and the people he loves.
But the Glock comforts him. It brings him closer to peace.
Now he wears the gun inside his apartment, which he shares with his son, daughter and granddaughter.
"I am better mentally prepared if something like this happens again," he said. "That first incident helps you gain the knowledge, the foresight, the idea of what to do."
But every scenario is different, he said, and his vigilance also boils over.
About six months after the shooting, he was walking again. He had just parked and was going to Great Clips for a haircut.
A suspicious man came out of nowhere in the parking lot and looked similar to the man he'd killed.
"And he was walking right toward me," he said.
Wolf put his hand on his trusty Glock. He told the man to stop right there.
What do you want?
"He stopped dead and pulled his hands out of his pockets," Wolf said.
The man fumbled around and wanted to give Wolf something.
It was a card.
"I don't know who he was or where he came from," Wolf said. "I was expecting the worst. I prepared for the worst."
Wolf, who lost his composure retelling the story, took the card and went back to his car. The next time he looked up, he said, the man was gone.
The card said: "Jesus loves you."