† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Standing Up to “Stand Your Ground”
by nancy a heitzeg
A mere 9 months after Trayvon Martin, and here we are, mourning Jordan Davis, another 17 year old Florida teen shot down. This time “loud music” not “hoodies” was the proximate trigger, but the real reason, of course, irrational archtypical threat of The Criminal-Black-Man.
As Melissa Harris-Perry puts it, “No Country for Black Boys”.
Her Open Letter this week addresses the details and the larger concerns:
It’s me, Melissa. And if you are like me, this latest news has got you concerned, indeed. Because here we are again. It has been barely a year since the killing of Trayvon Martin resurrected that old angst–long buried, but always there just below the surface. You know that feeling. It’s the one that makes us hear about Trayvon, and now Jordan Davis, and reach back across decades into our history, for the name of another boy named Emmett Till.
Then, it was a whistle at a white woman. Now, it’s a hooded sweatshirt or music being played loudly from a car.
But always, this one thing has been the same–No presumption of innocence for young black men. No benefit of the doubt. Guilt–not determined by what they did or said–but presumed to be inherent in their very being. They need not wield a weapon to pose a threat. Because, if you are a young, black man, who you are is threat enough. And in yet another case, it seems, that perceived threat is justification enough for someone who would play judge, jury and executioner.
Jordan Russell Davis will be laid to rest today. His father described his son as a typical teenager, who was looking forward to staring his first job, working at McDonald’s. He was saving up to buy his first car. The day before he died, his mother says, he gave the Thanksgiving dinner prayer, where he gave thanks for his family.
But before Jordan could be eulogized at his funeral, the defense team for the man who is accused of killing him was already telling a different story about who this young man was. According to police, Jordan and his three friends were sitting in an SUV at a Jacksonville gas station, when Dunn pulled up next to them and asked them to turn down their music down. Words were exchanged. This is the story Dunn’s attorney, Robin Lemonidis, about why her client felt threatened:
“He sees that much of a shotgun coming up over the rim of the SUV…and all he sees are heavily tinted front windows that are up and the back windows that are down, and the car has at least four black men in it, and he doesn’t know how old anyone is, and he doesn’t know anything, but he knows a shotgun when he sees one because he got his first gun as a gift from his grandparents when he was in third grade.”
Police have found no evidence that Jordan and his friends had any weapon in their car.
But Michael David Dunn, a registered gun owner, did have one. He used his gun to fire eight rounds into the boys’ vehicle. Two of those bullets struck and killed Jordan Davis, who was sitting in the backseat. Dunn fled the scene.
These are the facts as we know them today. As the investigation continues, details will no doubt continue to emerge. But as we watch the case unfold, let us be sure, while we are watching, that we continue to see in Jordan Davis what Michael Dunn did not–a human being, instead of a threat.
Michael Dunn, unlike George Zimmerman, was immediately arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder and is being held without bail. Like Zimmerman, however, he is claiming self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. While race and racism are central to the shooting of these young black men, it is the latitude towards gun users further legalized in Stand Your Ground that allows the defendants to claim “self-defense”.
Their genesis and impact deserve closer scrutiny here.
The Trouble with “Stand Your Ground” Legislation
For centuries, the so-called “Castle Doctrine” has held that a homeowner may use deadly force against intruders and legally claim self-defense. Until recently, The Castle Doctrine (as expressed in various state laws ) also required key elements in order for a successful claim of self-defense to be made. Generally, the person must be in their home, there be an unlawful intrusion ( as opposed to standing on your lawn),. the use of deadly force must be “reasonable”, and in many cases, their is duty to retreat i.e. deadly force must be a last, rather than first, resort.
Stand Your Ground legislation removes many of the limits imposed on shooters by the Castle Doctrine — the self-defense claim extends to public places, there is no requirement of “retreat”, and the burden is now on the prosecution to determine “reasonableness.” The first such legislation was passed in Florida in 2005 ( it was shepherded through the legislature by Marco Rubio and signed into law by then Governor Jeb Bush for those of looking towards 2016). Pushed by the NRA and ALEC, these laws spread quickly; 24 additional states now have comparable legislation. ( See Mother Jones for an excellent interactive graphic on the spread of these laws.)
Although “theoretically” pushed as a means to increase public safety and deter crime, Stand Your Ground Laws have generally and specifically added to risk. Recent events and research highlight key concerns:
- Stand Your Ground Laws May Lead to More Deaths
Stand Your Ground Laws were marketed as deterrents and protectors of public safety. Nothing could be further from the truth. This legislation has furthered a Wild West mentality that has actually increased homicides in states that have enacted them.
A recently published study from Texas A&M University found that the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased in states with Stand Your Ground Laws. This may be due to more people using lethal force in self-defense, or situations are more now likely to escalate to the use of violence in states with the laws. The study analyzed FBI crime data nationwide from 2000-2009 and found:
We find no evidence of deterrence ; burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault assault are unaffected by the laws are unaffected by the laws are unaffected by the laws. On the other hand, the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws. That’s an additional 600 homicides per year in the states that have enacted such laws. The results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense law is increased homicide.”
- Teenagers May Be at Heightened Risk
While there is no research to date on age-related impacts, anecdotal evidence suggests that teens may be prime targets for Stand Your Ground stand-offs. In just the past 2 weeks, three teens – including Davis – have been killed in such circumstances. Since Stand Your Ground laws extend to public spaces, they increase the likelihood of confrontations with groups of young people, as in the Davis case. Kathleen Stilling, a former Wisconsin circuit judge articulates these worries:
These new laws are going to disproportionately result in more consequences to teenagers that are beyond the scope of what the kids were really doing, Teenagers doing things that are not capital offenses end up facing deadly consequences…
When you’re talking about the sidewalk immediately outside your house, it seems to me that’s going to be an area where there’s a higher potential for kids, perhaps naughty but innocent of any destructive intent, could end up. Just talking to teenagers reveals stories about underage drinking parties, or ‘Risky Business’ parties, and how everybody ran from the cops and scattered into surrounding yards, where they could end up in a position to frighten someone.
I do think that someone needs to tell the kids that the rules have changed.
- Racial Disparity: Whites Killing Blacks Get A Pass
No surprise here. Research verifies what the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases have suggested : the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks. This was the case even before Stand Your Ground legislation and , alos as expected, these laws increase both number of justifiable homicides and the racialized gaps.
At the request of Frontline, John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, analyzed the pool of 43,500 homicides by race in states with Stand Your Ground laws and those without them. Stand Your Ground laws tend to mirror the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.
As a result, The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced plans to investigation “indicators of racial bias” in the application of Stand Your Ground legislation. ( Read full press release here).
Stand Up to Stand Your Ground
Stand Your Ground laws are, of course, just part of the problem. Their real impact is made manifest by the proliferation of guns in the U.S. — the average number of guns per owner is up from 4.1 per person in 1994 to 6.9 in 2004 – and a plethora of additional legislation that allows liberally for conceal and carry, sometimes without a permit and often, anywhere.
The chart below details the shifts in conceal and carry over the past 30 years. Wild, Wild West – Everywhere.
Oh the NRA will say, “Guns don’t Kill People – People Do”, and yes well that is simplistically true, but guns make it so much easier. And it is this toxic mix of heavily armed citizens, loaded up with ammo and racial stereotypes. that make Stand Your Ground Laws a recipe for on-going disaster.
Undoing these laws will be no easy task, but recent tragedies have raised questions again about both lax gun legislation in general and Stand Your Ground in specific. For now, if you live in a Stand Your Ground state –please Be Careful. Here are a few additional options for action:
- Support the Second Chance for Shoot First Campaign
- Support the Change for Trayvon Movement