State capitols turn into battlefields over the arming of America

While proponents of gun control have launched a 'spring and summer offensive' targeting stand-your-ground statutes, the NRA is putting its lobbying machine back in high gear.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Family members look at hand guns at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the site for the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas on May 4, 2013.

A Republican lawmaker in Florida is using the death of Jordan Davis, a 16-year-old black youth killed in a fight over loud rap music, to try to fix the state’s pioneering “stand your ground” law by curbing self-defense protections for people who start a fight and finish it with gunshots.

Jordan’s parents – Lucia McBath and Ronald Davis – meanwhile are testifying Tuesday at the Georgia Capitol against HB 875 (the Safe Carry Protection Act), which would make Georgia the first in the nation to allow gun-carry at airports, including the nation’s busiest hub – Hartfield Jackson International Airport. The National Rifle Association has called the bill the “most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent state history.”

Indeed, as gun-control proponents have launched what the Rev. Al Sharpton on Monday called a “spring and summer offensive” to fight the expansion of gun rights and push for the repeal or modification of stand-your-ground statutes, the reaction from legislators in strong self-defense states like Florida and Georgia could be telling for a broader debate in the US about the extent to which greater gun rights make society more or less dangerous.

Even as hundreds of protesters gathered for an anti-gun rally in Tallahassee Monday, state lawmakers were mainly focused on expanding gun rights by considering bills that would stretch stand your ground to cover warning shots and make it illegal for schools to punish kids if they nibble food into the shape of a gun.

That focus comes back to a political reality: The NRA, after moderating its rhetoric and legislative agenda in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, has now begun to rev up its lobbying machine and put it back into high gear.

In some ways, the aftermath of Jordan’s death – and of the subsequent trial in which a jury deadlocked last month on murder charges against a 40-something white computer engineer named Michael Dunn – underscores how deeply America is conflicted about the role of guns in society. It also signals that American culture – and courts – have only begun to wrestle with the consequences of Supreme Court rulings that have strengthened the notion that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own a gun as a tool for self-defense.

Jordan Davis was to some a victim of what many see as an increasingly shoot-first society in which a number of mundane arguments and suspicions in recent years turned deadly at least in part because legally carried guns were added to the mix. The shooting of Trayvon Martin in early 2012 and the killing in early February of a Tampa area movie patron who threw popcorn at a man with a gun are other oft-cited examples.

For its part, the stand-your-ground idea extends the so-called “castle doctrine” – in which citizens have no duty to retreat from danger in their own home – to public areas. That means a gun-carrying citizen can fire legally at another citizen if they have a reasonable fear that they may be harmed or killed.

That no-retreat doctrine has been cited to juries by judges even in cases where defendants didn’t claim the law as a defense.

Some studies have found a racial component to the laws. According to a study by the Tampa Bay Times, self-defense claimants walked free 73 percent of the time when the victim was black, and 59 percent of the time when the victim was white.

Jordan’s dad, Ronald Davis, said in February that such laws make it more dangerous for young black men to become “collateral damage” to the political push, driven in part by the NRA, to make it easier to own and carry guns in public.

Such analysis, especially coming from the parents of victims, has had some impact. Bills rolling back parts of stand your ground have been introduced, though not passed, in several states. Notably, no state has passed another stand-your-ground law since the death of Trayvon Martin, marking an abrupt stop after a rapid march of those laws across the country.

In Florida, Republican state Sen. David Simmons has introduced new legislation that would make it illegal for judges to reference stand your ground in cases where the claimant provoked a confrontation.

Indeed, what juries in recent stand-your-ground-related cases have struggled to determine is what responsibility the person who starts an altercation has if death follows.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager fought back against an armed stranger following him, but that stranger – a neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman – was acquitted based on the fact that Trayvon threw the first punch.

Given the judge’s reference to stand your ground in her instructions to the jury, jurors never had to seriously address the idea that Mr. Zimmerman was culpable for setting the deadly series of events into motion.

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