Criminal Justice

This Elderly Man Was Arrested After Shooting a Burglar in Self-Defense—for Carrying the Gun Without a License

Vincent Yakaitis is unfortunately not the first such defendant. He will also not be the last.


Dennis Powanda and Vincent Yakaitis are bound together by a common experience: They were both criminally charged in connection with an attempted burglary. Powanda was the burglar, and Yakaitis was the property owner.

Ah, justice.

Indeed, that's not a misprint, parody, or a bad joke (although I wish it were the latter). Powanda was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and burglary, along with other related offenses, for executing the botched raid a little before 2:00 a.m. in February 2023 at Yakaitis' property in Port Carbon, Pennsylvania. The government charged Yakaitis, who is in his mid-70s, with using a firearm without a license after he shot Powanda, despite that it appears prosecutors agree Yakaitis justifiably used that same firearm in self-defense.

Whatever your vantage point—whether you care about criminal justice reform and a fair legal system, or gun rights, or all of the above—it is difficult to make sense of arresting and potentially imprisoning someone over what essentially amounts to a paperwork violation. That injustice is even more glaring when considering that Powanda, 40, allegedly charged at Yakaitis, who happens to be about three and a half decades older than Powanda.

Pennsylvania's permitting regime does carve out a couple of exceptions, one of which would seem to highly favor Yakaitis. Someone does not need a license to carry, according to the law, "in his place of abode or fixed place of business." Yakaitis owned the home Powanda attempted to burglarize. The catch: He didn't live there—it reportedly had no tenants at the time of the crime—opening a window for law enforcement to charge him essentially on a technicality.

If convicted, Yakaitis faces up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Quite the price to pay for protecting your life on your own property. The misdemeanor charge also implies that Yakaitis has no history of using his weapon inappropriately, or any criminal record at all, as Pennsylvania law classifies his particular crime—carrying a firearm without a license—as a felony if the defendant has prior criminal convictions and would be disqualified from obtaining such a license. In other words, we can deduce that Yakaitis was a law-abiding citizen and eligible for a permit, which means he is staring down five years in a cell for not turning in a form and paying a fee to local law enforcement. OK.

Yakaitis is not the first such case. In June, law enforcement in New York charged Charles Foehner with so many gun possession crimes that if convicted on all of them he would face life in prison. Police came to be aware of his unlicensed firearms when Foehner defended himself against an attempted mugger—the surveillance footage is here—after which they searched Foehner's home and found that only some of his weapons were licensed with the state.

Prosecutors classified it as a justified shooting. And then they hit Foehner with an avalanche of criminal charges that would have resulted in a longer prison sentence than his assailant would have received, had he survived.

There's also LaShawn Craig, another New York City man whose case I covered in December. He, too, shot someone in self-defense and he, too, was arrested for doing so without a license. Like Foehner, he was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, a violent felony in New York. For a paperwork violation.

New York is a particularly relevant case study on the subject, as its highly restrictive concealed carry framework was the subject of a landmark Supreme Court case—New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen—which the majority disemboweled. It wasn't just conservative gun rights advocates who wanted that ruling, although you'd be forgiven for thinking so based on how polarized this debate tends to be. That Supreme Court decision also attracted support from progressive public defenders with The Black Attorneys of Legal Aid, The Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services. As I wrote in June about the amicus brief they submitted to the Court:

[The public defenders] offered several case studies centered around people whose lives were similarly upended. Among them were Benjamin Prosser and Sam Little, who had both been victims of violent crimes and who are now considered "violent felons" in the eyes of the state simply for carrying a firearm without the mandated government approval. Little, a single father who had previously been slashed in the face, was separated from his family while he served his sentence at the Vernon C. Bain Center, a notorious jail that floats on the East River. The conviction destroyed his nascent career, with the Department of Education rescinding its offer of employment.

In many jurisdictions, including New York, it can be expensive and time-consuming to get the required license, which in turn makes the Second Amendment available only to people of a certain class.

So where do we go from here? Those skeptical of rolling back concealed carry restrictions may take comfort in the fact that this doesn't have to be black and white. Governments, for example, can "give eligible persons a 30-day grace period to seek and obtain a permit after being charged, then automatically drop charges and expunge record once obtained," offers Amy Swearer, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, or "remove the criminal penalty entirely" and perhaps "make it a fineable infraction," like driving without a license.

Whatever the case, it should be—it is—possible to balance public safety with the right to bear arms, and, as an extension, the right to self-defense. To argue otherwise is to embolden a legal system that incentivizes elderly men like Yakaitis to sit down and take it when someone threatens their life.