So it’s happened again. Another state, another neighborhood, another young black person shot to death by someone based on a loose, subjective “fear.” This time it’s Michigan, and it’s a young woman instead of a teenage boy, but otherwise it’s the same basic pattern of an African-American in a predominately white neighborhood at night running afoul of a gun-toting homeowner.
There will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the prevalence of “Stand Your Ground” laws (which Michigan boasts), followed by the equal and opposite reaction loudly pointing out that Stand Your Ground doesn’t apply to this particular case (which it doesn’t).
However, while what happened in Michigan may not invoke the state’s Stand Your Ground law, the existence and high-profile nature of laws that lower the standard for legally forgivable gunplay has everything to do with what happened in Michigan…
Renisha McBride was a 19-year-old woman living in Michigan. On Saturday, she got into a car accident in Dearborn Heights at around 2:30 a.m. Unable to call for help, because her cell phone was dead, Renisha went to a nearby home to seek assistance. While “I was in an accident and need help, please let me in” is a clichéd horror movie trope, the reason it’s a stupid horror movie trope is the homeowner doesn’t ever need to open the door — just call 911 and let them take care of it! And if you feel the person seeking help needs more immediate aid, call 911 first, then go help them — and if they were planning to hurt you, he or she would have skedaddled off knowing that the police are en route and there’s little to no time to do whatever nefarious act he or she had planned.
In this case, the homeowner opted not to call the police. Instead, he opted to open the door and kill Renisha. At present, the story is that after shooting Renisha, the homeowner — whose name is withheld — did not immediately inform the authorities. I mean, he didn’t see the need to call the police before when she was asking for help, why call the police after he killed someone?
The homeowner is arguing that he killed Renisha in self-defense. Probably because he thinks stupid horror movies are real. That’s up to a jury. But from the facts we do know from the police, even if something happened that could warrant a self-defense argument, it probably could have been avoided, which would have been better for society as a whole.
Now I’m not as virulently anti-gun as you might expect. Guns have a purpose. What I have a problem with is the recent and aggressive effort of lobbying groups to slacken the legal restrictions on gun usage in an effort to drum up more sales. That sounds cynical, but look, self-defense is always a defense in these cases. If you shoot and kill someone because you feel that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would feel there was no alternative but to fire, you can argue that case to a jury. The only reason to change the law to recognize a right to use a firearm on another person based on a subjective fear, with no duty to retreat, and have the case decided as a preliminary matter by a judge triggering a bar on future civil claims is to make potential gun owners feel that owning and using a gun is “easier.” The rhetoric surrounding the passage of Stand Your Ground (and associated laws that make it easier to use guns on other people) employs language like “[b]y removing ambiguities regarding legal responses to imminent threats to life and property and removing an obligation to retreat, the law attempts to rebalance justice on behalf of innocent, law-abiding Floridians.” Having to defend your actions to a jury of peers is an “ambiguity.” It used to be the basis of the justice system, but now it’s an ambiguity, I guess. With that ambiguity removed, a potential customer may be more willing to invest in a gun knowing that it’s easier to use with fewer repercussions. It’s all about the money.
Take a second to break down what that “ambiguity” means. Because what it means is, “the likelihood that a jury might think you weren’t justified when you ended somebody’s life.” This isn’t all that difficult: If you’re about to kill someone in justified self-defense, and you worry that reasonable people may not think you’re justified, you’re not justified.
And what does it mean for a gun owner to feel threatened? Elie broached this in yesterday’s post about a new study finding a statistical correlation between racist attitudes and gun ownership. This doesn’t mean everyone with a gun is racist — that’s a dumb claim — but if a statistically high number of gun owners are racist and thus more likely to interpret anything a minority does as threatening, a law that incentivizes responding to threats with deadly force — even if the law won’t ultimately protect them in a given case — leads to more people unnecessarily dead for walking up to someone on the street.
Because racist folks interpret the law like this:
The Zimmerman case — for all its failings — was actually the right outcome to the extent that the defense did not invoke any of the gun laws designed to take us back to the Wild Wild West, and instead asked a jury to evaluate a self-defense claim. We can criticize how that case played out, but that was the right process. Hopefully, this case will follow a similar process.
In Renisha’s case, this is not a Stand Your Ground issue, both because the homeowner appears to be claiming self-defense and given that this happened on his property, older Castle Doctrine principles might apply (depending on the details, which are scant in the early reports). But the reason why these cases should continue to raise the national focus on Stand Your Ground laws is that laws create incentives for behavior, and a high-profile law that tells people that the “ambiguities” around using a gun if you feel subjectively threatened have been removed is obviously going to increase the likelihood that someone will… use a gun when they feel subjectively threatened.
No matter how unfounded that fear may be.