Are the unarmed unequal under Stand Your Ground?

Mike Miner / MCT

In the wake of the verdict in the case of Michael Dunn, convicted of three counts of second-degree attempted murder and of firing 10 shots at a car containing four teenagers, state Rep. Alan Williams underlined the need to repeal Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

One of the teenagers was Jordan Davis, who was killed by Dunn. Williams said recent cases of black teenagers shot to death by strangers in the state “have renewed the argument that this injustice in our laws makes ordinary citizens feel empowered to shoot first and ask questions later; boosting murder rates and justifiable homicides and putting individuals that people too often presumed to be a threat in particular peril.”

Indeed, a January 2013 study by Texas A&M researcher Mark Hoekstra found that homicide rates have increased by 7 percent to 9 percent in the 23 states that have Stand Your Ground-type laws versus those without them.

Florida pioneered these “shoot first” laws, when Stand Your Ground passed nearly unanimously in the Legislature in 2005, and was then signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. The law expanded the Castle Doctrine. That is the near-universally accepted notion that if someone intrudes on your castle — your home or your car — you have the right to defend yourself, even with deadly force. Stand Your Ground made every place your castle: a street corner, or a gas station parking lot. And it transferred to civilians the power normally afforded to police to shoot anyone who in the mind of the gunman poses a threat.

It’s hard to argue against Williams’ point, that Stand Your Ground (even its name sounds like a warrior call!) has emboldened gun owners to act on their fears or biases without hesitation, knowing that so long as a jury believes their fear was reasonable in the moment, they will suffer no, or at least lesser, legal consequences.

If they take the additional step of seeking a Stand Your Ground immunity hearing before trial and are successful, they could even be protected from civil liability, just like gun manufacturers are.

It’s no wonder that gang members have become frequent partakers of the Stand Your Ground defense, because why wouldn’t they reasonably fear another gang member might kill them, and shoot them dead first?

The Dunn verdict, in which the jury reduced the attempted-murder charges from first- to second-degree and hung on the murder charge related to Jordan Davis, shows that even without the defense being raised affirmatively at trial, Stand Your Ground’s alterations to the jury instructions mean it’s easier to convict someone of shooting at a car than it is to convict them of killing one of the occupants.

That in a state where one in 17 people is carrying a concealed firearm, and where the state is poised to make it even easier to get such a permit. Marion Hammer, the NRA lobbyist and the real and permanent governor of Florida, says making concealed-weapons permits available at the tax collector’s office will make gun owners more conscious of the responsibilities of carrying a weapon.

Except that in Florida, they essentially have no responsibilities.

Rather, the responsibility falls squarely on non-gun owners to not irritate armed citizens, by playing their music too loudly, walking where a gun owner doesn’t think they should walk or throwing popcorn after refusing to stop texting during a movie.

In so doing, these laws make some Americans more equal than others, silently requiring the unarmed to strike a constant pose of submissiveness and passivity in the face of anyone who might have a gun.

For young black men in particular, who are more often consigned to societal unworthiness by implicit racial bias with the damning label of “thug” — based on how they dress or wear their hair, or their choice of music — Stand Your Ground effectively demands a specific kind of submissiveness: If they want to live, submit to the invisible authority of virtually any civilian who might believe, like Michael Dunn, per his jailhouse letters, that “if more people would arm themselves and kill these [expletive] idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

Marion’s Law has turned Florida into the Wild West — except that in the real Wild West, you couldn’t pack heat inside Tombstone city limits. It has given extraordinary and lethal power, confidence and presumed authority to gun owners, while transferring all the responsibility onto those of us who find ourselves traveling, unwittingly, inside the limitless walls of the gunman’s castle.

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