Photograph by Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union via AP Photo
Michael Dunn on the stand during his trial in Jacksonville, Fla.
The jury is out on whether Michael Dunn committed first-degree murder when he shot and killed Jordan Davis at a Florida gas station in November 2012. Whatever conclusion jurors reach, though, the Jacksonville “loud music” case ought to be seen as a reckoning for “stand your ground” laws such as Florida’s, which allow people to use deadly force in response to a reasonable fear their lives are threatened.
Davis’ pointless death—whether or not it’s ultimately deemed the result of premeditated murder—illustrates the need to rethink whether stand your ground encourages racially tinged paranoia likely to lead to the killing of young black men.
1. Dunn’s legal fate should turn on particular facts, not ideology. The deadly encounter began when the 47-year-old software developer asked four black teenagers to turn down the music thumping from their car. They complied, then cranked the volume back up. Davis, 17, cursed at Dunn. The older man claims he thought Davis was armed with a shotgun. Dunn reached into his glove box, pulled out his pistol, and fired 10 times at the teenagers’ car, killing Davis. Police did not find a shotgun or other weapon in the victims’ car.
In crucial testimony, Dunn’s fiancé contradicted him and said Dunn never mentioned to her after the shooting that Davis was armed. Dunn’s behavior after the incident doesn’t help his defense. He and his fiancé drove back to their hotel room, walked his dog, ordered pizza, had a drink, and went to sleep. Dunn learned from a news report that he’d killed someone at the gas station, but still didn’t call police. Instead, he and his companion drove two-and-a-half miles home to Brevard County, where he was finally arrested as the result of a witness having written down his license plate number.
2. Based on those facts, Dunn clearly and unnecessarily precipitated the violence, whatever verdict the jury reaches. Recall the Feb. 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, which also occurred in Florida. Neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s death. I stand by myassessment of that case: Zimmerman bore moral responsibility for Martin’s death, even though the jury had ample reason, based on the murky facts of that case, to find reasonable doubt about the severe criminal charges prosecutors brought. There is a difference between fault and criminal liability. Zimmerman recklessly got out of his vehicle and initiated the confrontation that ended with Martin’s pointless death.
Dunn is at fault in the death of Jordan Davis, regardless of whether the jury has reasonable doubt about whether Dunn committed premeditated first-degree murder. Dunn initiated an unnecessary confrontation at the gas station. He could have ignored the loud music. He could have stepped out of his car and joined his fiance in the convenience store. Once the teenagers defied his demand that they reduce the volume, Dunn again had an opportunity to take the high ground and just suffer what he considered unpleasant noise. Once he chose violence, Dunn’s conduct suggests a man entirely out of control: He fired a lot of rounds—10—into the adjacent car, and kept firing even after the teenagers pulled away. His bizarre failure to notify the authorities—the dog walking, pizza munching, alcohol imbibing, hotel sleeping, and driving home—undercuts his claim to have been so severely traumatized by the gas station encounter that he felt compelled to blast away with his pistol.
3. However the Dunn case turns out, Florida and other states need to rethink their stand-your-ground laws. What unfolded between Dunn and Davis suggests strongly that gun-toting civilians, as well as society at large, would benefit by an obligation to retreat, if possible, in the face of a perceived–and I stress perceived–threat. Leave to one side the debate about concealed-carry laws that allow gun owners to drive around with their weapons in their glove compartments. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that concealed carry is legal (as in fact it is in most of the country). It stands to reason that someone like Dunn would be much less likely to reach for his pistol–as opposed to walking or driving away–if there were no stand-your-ground statute in place to encourage him to escalate a dispute over music volume to a life-or-death confrontation. Surely in his heart of hearts, Dunn today wishes that he’d merely overlooked the sounds from the adjacent car. And obviously Davis’ grieving family wishes he had. Civilization requires tolerance for non-threatening behavior we don’t relish.
4. The Dunn case underscores the unavoidable racial subtext of stand-your-ground. Dunn was annoyed by what he described to his fiance as “thug music.” The word “thug” has become thinly veiled code for black. Can any dispassionate observer contemplate this interaction between a white middle-class man and four arguably rambunctious black teenagers and not see that some combination of fear and animosity on Dunn’s part contributed to the deadly outcome?
Given American history, unease about racial differences is inevitable. Disliking hip-hop or resenting rude behavior by a group of teenagers seems perfectly reasonable. Reaching for a semiautomatic handgun does not. As stand-your-ground has become the justification for deaths such as those of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, the law undermines decades of hard-earned progress on civil rights.