If an intruder were to enter Frank Barnhouse's rural Loudoun County house and threaten him, the 44-year-old telephone technician knows exactly what he would do.
And it wouldn't be calling the police.
"I'd shoot them," Barnhouse said matter-of-factly as he devoured a short stack of pancakes at a Leesburg restaurant yesterday. Barnhouse said he keeps several loaded weapons, including a pistol, in his house.
So it came as no surprise to Barnhouse on Thursday that a Loudoun jury acquitted Robert G. Lorenz, a Leesburg man who said he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot his drunk but unarmed neighbor on his front porch during an argument. Lorenz said that the neighbor, Duren Wayne Eldridge, had threatened to kill him and that he feared Eldridge would come into his house.
The jury's decision struck several legal specialists as unusual because Lorenz could have closed his door instead of firing his weapon. But in a county that had the highest per-capita rate of gun purchases in Northern Virginia last year, and where self-defense is seen as more than a burglar alarm and a deadbolt, many Loudoun residents thought the verdict a fair one.
Some condemned the acquittal, however, and local law enforcement officials said they fear it will embolden others to handle potentially violent situations themselves instead of calling the police.
"It bothers me," said Leesburg Police Chief Keith Stiles. "In a case like this, the jury either takes action against the event or condones it.
"Sure, Loudoun County is based on the rural culture," Stiles added, "but those days are past, and right now we have to recognize we're becoming urban and we have urban problems and it's time to quit going back to the mind-set that these are the frontier days."
Located on the Washington area's fringe, Loudoun is gun-friendly territory, a confluence of old-time rural residents and largely conservative suburban newcomers. It was, some lawyers said yesterday, the ideal place to try the Lorenz case.
"Compared to Fairfax or Montgomery, Loudoun's got more good old boys out here that would say that the man is in his home and he's got a drunk who just threatened to kill him a few minutes ago, so what do we need to wait for?" said Gregory Harris, a Leesburg criminal defense lawyer who practices throughout the Washington area. "You've got a friendlier jury out here for this type of case."
Loudoun residents bought 2,698 guns from licensed dealers last year, or roughly one firearm per 32 county residents, according to Virginia State Police records. In Fairfax County, the ratio was one gun per 117 residents, and in Arlington, one in 339 residents purchased a gun in 1995.
"We've got a lot of weapons -- a lot of loaded weapons -- in this county," said Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney Robert D. Anderson.
Eldridge, 31, began the April 9 argument because he was upset that Lorenz had called the police about teenage skateboarders who rode over Lorenz's lawn and flower bed a few days earlier. Eldridge banged on his neighbor's front door and challenged him to a fight. After a brief argument, Lorenz drew a handgun and shot Eldridge in the chest.
Lorenz, 54, was charged with first-degree murder. The jury of eight men and four women, who spent three days deliberating, could have convicted him of a lesser offense, including second-degree murder or manslaughter. None of the jurors reached yesterday would speak to a reporter.
"We did what we had to do," said juror Cynthia Fralick. "Other than that, I don't want to comment."
Some county residents, especially younger and newer ones, expressed disbelief that Lorenz escaped punishment.
"I don't think he should have gone free," said Doug Bowser, 35, who lives in Broad Run Farms and moved to the county five years ago. "He should have to pay for it some way."
Wendy Mitter, who moved to Leesburg from Canada in August, said Lorenz should have shut his door and called the police instead of taking the law into his own hands.
"It's just stunning to me the things people do here," Mitter, 39, said as she entered the Ida Lee Library. Lorenz "went completely overboard. He should have let the police handle the situation."
But Carol McComb, a lifelong Loudoun resident who works as a substitute teacher and lives on a dairy farm near Purcellville, said that it's impossible for others to put themselves in Lorenz's shoes.
"It's very easy to criticize someone's actions until you are in the same situation," said McComb, 50. "If you've got a problem with your neighbor, try to work it out with them, but you've still got to remember that private property is private property, and you just can't go threatening people."
To Jim Bosley, 54, a used-car dealer who lives in Leesburg, it didn't matter that Eldridge was unarmed and never entered Lorenz's house.
"If a person is threatened in his own house, on his own property, they should be able to protect themselves," Bosley said.
"You know, if a guy starts raising hell on my front porch, it's almost like he's in my living room." Staff writers Victoria Benning and Peter Pae contributed to this report.