The nation spent a good part of this year trying to make sense of Trayvon Martin’s killing. Remarkably, at least to me, much of the discussion centered on whether or not the young man assaulted George Zimmerman and not about whether George Zimmerman should simply have left the scene and yielded authority to the police. As that matter heads to trial in Florida, some news sources are beginning to tell the story of Jordan Russell Davis, whose death strikes me as yet another example of why the “stand your ground” laws in Florida and elsewhere need to be undone.
Jordan Russell Davis was shot to death outside a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida by Michael David Dunn. Davis was 17 and African American. Dunn is 45 and White. Davis was in an SUV listening to loud music with friends. Dunn drove up to the convenience store and complained about Davis’s music while his girlfriend was in the convenience store. The two men argued. Dunn reportedly fired eight shots at Davis. Davis was killed, none of the other young people in the car were injured. Dunn’s lawyer claims Davis saw a shotgun in Dunn’s car. The police have not found the gun. Dunn’s lawyer suggests they are not looking hard enough.
There is no dispute that the music was loud. There is also no room to question whether Dunn could have driven away rather than shoot the young man. In Florida, however, and other states with “stand your ground” laws, people in Dunn’s position are not obligated to retreat. Instead, if they fear for their lives, they are free to “defend” themselves as Dunn seems to think he did here. The cost, in both of the recent Florida cases, is the life of a young man.
I suspect that it is not a coincidence that both of the young men killed were not white. Fear (the motivating factor, it seems, for both Dunn and Zimmerman) is sometimes rooted in stereotype. Admittedly, I do not know enough to call Dunn a racist or to assign such a motive to this killing. I do know, however, that a recent study by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission shows that in a world where only 3.1 percent of homicides are cross-racial, 15.6 percent of claimed “justifiable” homicides are cross-racial. This statistic is suggestive of an underlying race problem and is just one good reason “stand your ground” laws have got to go.
The other reason is this — these killings show that the underlying notion gun owners will show restraint in conflict is simply not true enough to give them a perceived license to shoot. George Zimmerman should have left the scene. Michael Dunn should have driven away. Others, whose names we don’t know, should also have retreated rather than taking a life. But when faced with confrontation and in possession of a pistol and a perceived license to act, people are clearly tempted to kill. One unnecessary death is too many. That we know of at least two in the recent past is reason enough to be done with these laws.
The “stand your ground” laws are pernicious because they create a culture that supports the belief that it is sometimes okay to resolve a confrontation over the volume of music with a handgun. Even if Dunn ultimately loses his case, Jordan Russell Davis will never hear another song. We need to build a culture that resorts to deadly violence only when there is no other option. Requiring a gun owner to retreat rather than kill seems a simple solution to a growing problem. In a civilization of laws, the laws should encourage good citizenship rather than protect misguided vigilantes.
Let me be clear that this was not conceived as an argument for gun control. I think of it as a plea for reasoned lawmaking. Whatever the reasons for the “stand your ground” laws may have been, we now have enough experience with them to know that they delegate judgment to the wrong people. These aren’t gun owners protecting their homes. These are gun owners initiating confrontations on the street and then killing. It’s the opposite of lawful and any law that legitimizes such behavior needs to be repealed. Right now.
2/1/2013 — The NRA keeps extolling the virtues of law-abiding gun owners. I urge you to consider that argument in the context of this story. There really is no way around it: people carrying concealed weapons are dangerous. If we are going to keep our children safe, we need to radically change our approach to gun ownership. The President’s efforts in that regard are long overdue. We need to make sure that the change he now wants happens.