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At what point is it no longer self-defense?

Mechanic Ben Tate keeps a sticker on the door of his auto repair shop. "Sure you can have my gun," it reads. "BULLETS FIRST."

Three times since October 2000, Tate has made good on that promise, pumping slugs from his .357-caliber Magnum into men who have tried to rob him or burglarize his shop on Columbus Drive.

Most recently, just before midnight Thursday, the 63-year-old Tate critically wounded a man with a knife who demanded cash and the keys to his car.

The Tampa Police Department is calling it a case of self-defense. As before, it is unlikely Tate will be charged.

Contrast that with the case of Lawrence Storer, the 33-year-old owner of Sumos Thai restaurant in downtown Tampa. Robbed at gunpoint near midnight Wednesday while he was remodeling the restaurant, Storer jumped into his Ford Explorer and drove after his attacker.

A few blocks later, Storer's truck slammed into the gunman, 24-year-old Shantavious Wilson, who died at the scene. Potential charge for the restaurant owner: first-degree murder.

The two cases raise questions about the sometimes blurry line between legitimate self-defense and Death Wish-style vigilantism. How far can victims legally go in fighting back against criminals, before they become criminals themselves?

Before Wednesday night, it was easy to look at Storer and Wilson and discern which was the model citizen and which the lawbreaker.

Storer, the restaurant owner, is a hard-working small businessman who put in long, late hours at his E Twiggs Street diner. The father of a young child, he has no criminal record in Florida.

Wilson, by contrast, the attacker, had charges on his record for robbery with a weapon, carrying a concealed firearm, and performing a lewd and lascivious act on a child.

"I think jurors are going to be sympathetic to a business owner that has just been victimized in this fashion," said Tampa defense lawyer Eddie Suarez.

But a self-defense argument on Storer's part will be a tough sell, legal experts say. Unlike the case of Tampa mechanic Tate, who has used his .357 against attackers while their crimes were in progress, the robbery of Storer was effectively over when he gave chase.

Storer was "pursuing rather than defending," said Sami Thalji, a Tampa defense lawyer and former prosecutor. "That's probably going to be his biggest problem. If he got in the car with the intent "I'm going to run this guy down,' that could be first-degree murder. You don't have the right to hunt people down."

In general, defense lawyers see two potential strategies that could apply in Storer's case, depending upon the evidence.

To prevail with a self-defense argument, the restaurateur would have to show that he was in danger from the gunman during the chase. If Wilson flashed a gun while he ran, for example, Storer's attorney might argue he had to use deadly force to defend himself.

Another possible claim would be he struck Wilson in the "heat of passion" from the robbery, which could decrease his crime from murder to manslaughter.

Capt. Bob Guidara, spokesman for the Tampa Police Department, said detectives will meet with prosecutors at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office next week to review whether charges should be filed against Storer.

Guidara said it was not yet clear whether Storer struck Wilson on purpose or accidentally.

Since the truck hit Wilson near the federal courthouse in the 500 block of E Polk Street, investigators are looking into how much surveillance cameras captured of the chase and its culmination.

In deciding Storer's fate at trial, jurors would most likely not learn of Wilson's record as a practiced criminal and would be asked to focus strictly on what happened Wednesday night.

John Fitzgibbons, Storer's attorney, said his client was "just a regular, normal young man trying to run his business, and in seconds he gets thrust into the spotlight. He certainly did not ask to be here."

Fitzgibbons said the restaurateur "went through one of the most terrifying experiences that any human can have" in having a gun pointed at him. "Lawrence is lucky to be alive."

Fitzgibbons added, "This could have been any downtown business person. I've had people call me and say, "There but for the grace of God go I.'

"

And at Ben Tate's auto repair shop on Columbus Drive, the thieves seem to keep on coming, despite the threatening door sticker and their dismal luck there.

Tate was changing a car's oil Thursday night when police say Michael E. Garner, a 21-year-old Tampa man, tried to rob him.

Police said Garner held his hand behind his back, implying he had a gun, and threatened to shoot if he didn't get cash and the keys to Tate's car.

Tate shot him once in the chest, and Garner, who had a knife hidden in his waistband but no gun, was taken to Tampa General Hospital. Police said he remained there Friday night but his injuries were no longer life-threatening.

In Oct. 2000, Tate shot a man who tried to break into the shop, sending the man to the hospital in critical condition. The man recovered and was charged with burglary. In February, Tate shot another man who barged into the store, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. Tate was not charged in either case.

"It's me or him," Tate told reporters Friday. "And I am going to try to make sure its him."

_ Times staff writer Tamara Lush and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or goffardsptimes.com

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