Two days after Jordan Davis’s parents buried the body of their 17-year-old son in the Georgia ground, a campaign to repeal "Stand Your Ground" laws in Florida and elsewhere appears to be gaining steam.
Davis was shot to death in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23 after Michael Dunn, 45, said he felt threatened by the two black teenagers and one young black man sitting with Davis in an SUV. Dunn told police he argued with the group over the volume of their music, saw a shotgun emerge from one of the SUV’s windows then, fired his handgun eight or nine times before fleeing. Three of Dunn’s bullets struck and killed Davis, a lawyer for the boy’s family said Tuesday. Police said those in the SUV were unarmed.
Police charged Dunn, a software engineer, with murder and attempted murder one day after the shooting. He remains in jail. Dunn's lawyer has indicated he will build a defense around Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which gives shooters the right to use deadly force when they feel threatened and does not require them to retreat. Florida’s law sparked a state inquiry, a federal Civil Rights Commission investigation, public protests and intense political wrangling in other states after the February killing of unarmed Trayvon Martin, also 17 and black, by a neighborhood watchman.
The killing of Davis has prompted gun control advocates and civil rights groups to renew arguments that Stand Your Ground laws make ordinary citizens feel empowered to shoot first and ask questions later, boosting murder rates and justifiable homicide claims, muddling prosecutions and putting young black men -- people too often presumed to be a threat -- in particular peril. Civil rights groups, including Color of Change, the NAACP and the Urban League, as well gun control groups such as the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign, have joined forces to gather online signatures for a repeal of Stand Your Ground laws in 26 states. The groups also plan to restart a campaign to lobby state legislatures in January, said Ginny Simmons, director of Second Chance.
Stand Your Ground policies have the odd effect of giving average citizens more legal leeway to shoot at others than either the nation’s police or armed forces have, said Simmons.
“What we are doing with these laws is allowing our country to become more dangerous than a war zone,” Simmons said.
Rashad Robinson is the executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit organization that worked last year to expose the National Rifle Association’s role in getting Stand Your Ground policies approved, and the NRA’s relationship with the American Legislative Council, or ALEC. ALEC is a conservative political organization that suggests template legislation, including Stand Your Ground proposals, to right-leaning lawmakers.
“Unfortunately, we have had another one of these tragic incidents that highlights how horrible these laws are and how dangerous they can be in that they empower vigilantes and provide them cover," Robinson said. "We also live in a cultural environment in which young black men are feared and seen as a sort of universal threat. Their mere existence, is for some people a problem. That’s the cultural climate in which these laws have been implemented.”
If those ideas are the cultural equivalent of widely distributed gunpowder, Stand Your Ground laws lit the fuse, Robinson said.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The gun rights and education group has claimed that the laws both deter crime and provide legal protection for shooters who feel that they are in danger.
The problem with Stand Your Ground laws is not just how they are understood by legislators or gun owners, Robinson said. They have also produced another kind of unequal justice, he said.
In states with Stand Your Ground laws, 34 percent of white shooters did not face charges or have not been convicted after shooting a black person, an Urban Institute analysis found. Just 3 percent of black shooters got the same treatment after shooting a white person and making a Stand Your Ground claim, according to the Urban Institute report. And in Florida, the national pioneer, justifiable homicides grew by nearly 195 percent since the law took effect in 2005, FBI data shows.
Davis’ parents, through their lawyer, haven't claimed their son's skin color had to do with his death. But they said they stand ready to do whatever necessary to roll back Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and other states because of the public danger that they create, an attorney for the family said.
“I hate to quote George Bush here, but they want this to be a uniter, not a divider,” said John M. Philips, a white Jacksonville-area lawyer who typically handles personal injury and wrongful death cases but has stepped in to represent Davis’ parents and act as a spokesman while they grieve. “They want America to understand that this could have been anyone’s son.”
President Barack Obama was criticized in March after he said publicly that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin -- young, black and possibly even wearing a hoodie. Obama made the comments while expressing sympathy for Martin’s parents and concern about the loss that too many black parents must fear.
A 2012 Texas A &M University study distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and 19 other states failed to deter violent crime. The study found a clear increase in homicides in those states -- with up to 700 additional killings nationwide each year. It is unclear how many of those slain were people of color.
“I think it’s hard to wrap you head around what this law means until you are talking about real names and real people,” said Simmons with Second Chance. “After Trayvon Martin and after Jordan Davis, people actually know those stories and know that in the nation’s leading Stand Your Ground state, a teenager listening to music in a car died. Unfortunately, that’s very powerful. After Trayvon, there is no question that there was a momentum shift."
From 2005, when Florida passed the nation's first Stand Your Ground law, to 2011, 25 states have adopted some version of the NRA-backed law, Simmons said. This year has marked the first year since 2005 when no new laws were passed. One state, Indiana, expanded its existing Stand Your Ground law and Louisiana clarified its policy requiring police and prosecutors to fully investigate cases where defendants claim self-defense.