It’s been a harsh February, and I’m not talking about the weather. As the annual celebration of the accomplishments of black Americans, replete with references to President Obama, was winding down, the month presented a stark reminder of the casual bigotry that still haunts the lives of black citizens. The verdict in the Florida shooting of Jordan Davis was an unwelcome specter over Black History Month.
While Michael Dunn, who killed Davis in a dispute over loud music, will probably serve decades in prison for the attempted murders of Davis’ friends, he has so far escaped punishment for the death of an unarmed adolescent. The jury deadlocked on a single count of first-degree murder.
A juror told ABC’s Nightline that race never entered the deliberations, but it’s obvious that pernicious stereotypes about young black men hung over the proceedings. And those prejudices allowed Dunn to escape justice for Davis’ death. (Just try to imagine the opposite scenario: A black teenager claims an unarmed white man made him fear for his life, kills him and gets away with it.)
There are no laws or policies that can eradicate stereotypes, no simple cures for implicit bias. But Florida can repeal its awful “stand your ground” law, which has allowed that bigotry free rein. So can the several other states that have passed expanded “self-defense” laws that let trigger-happy gun toters open fire on the unarmed. The streets are made less safe when paranoid gun owners are able to turn a non-violent dispute into a death sentence.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law is merely the worst — the most easily abused — of those laws. Last month, in a Tampa suburb, a retired police captain shot an unarmed man dead in an argument over texting in a movie theater. The retiree claims he felt threatened.
Years ago, Florida’s law, like most, required a person who feared for his life to “retreat” if it were possible to do so. If you could leave, you were not in mortal danger, according to the law.
That changed when a diminutive firearms fanatic named Marion Hammer ascended to the presidency of the National Rifle Association in the mid-1990s. She was a chief architect of “stand your ground” and a forceful lobbyist for its 2005 passage, insisting that law-abiding citizens needed it to protect themselves from thugs.
I interviewed Hammer during her NRA presidency, and her tales were instructive. Though her oft-told lore includes a story about fending off a gang about to attack her in the 1980s, she told me that she had pulled her weapon three times to protect herself from would-be assailants.
That sounded like a person seeking out unsafe settings, looking for danger, wanting to be a vigilante. And that’s exactly the sort of personality who ought to be reined in by the law — not encouraged.
The attention-seeking George Zimmerman, who killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin, is just that kind. He stalked Martin through his gated community even after a police dispatcher advised him to stop following.
It’s not at all clear what motivated Michael Dunn, but he seemed awfully self-satisfied after firing on a carload of young men. After he shot 10 rounds into the SUV, hitting Davis three times, he returned to his hotel room and had pizza.
Dunn’s social views, by the way, are shot through with bigotry, as a letter he wrote from jail revealed:
“This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs,” he wrote. “This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these … idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior. … The more time I am exposed to these people, the more prejudiced against them I become.”
“Stand your ground” laws simply encourage the Michael Dunns of the world to act on their worst impulses.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)