COMMENTARY | “Stand your ground” is in the news again. Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man from Florida, has been found guilty of four out of five criminal charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Many Americans, however, feel that the partial victory is hollow, reports CNN. After all, the jury was deadlocked over the charge of first-degree murder, causing a mistrial on that charge. Critics of the verdict are opining that it represents just how little black men, particularly young black men, are respected by society.
Critics are saying that Dunn killed Davis because Davis was non-compliant with a demand to turn down his music at a Florida gas station. firing at Davis and his three friends in a rage because he felt disrespected. Dunn has said that Davis threatened his life and that he thought he saw a long run being raised above the bottom edge of a window in Davis’ SUV, prompting him to seek self-defense with the pistol he kept in his glove compartment. In the end, police found no weapon in Davis’ SUV. Dunn, immediately after the shooting, had fled the scene and was later tracked down by police.
While proponents of both prosecution and defense agree that harsh words were exchanged between Dunn and Davis, that is where any agreement ends.
The question of what constitutes a threat, therefore, is raised. Does an angry “f–k you” qualify as a threat? Does a specific bodily injury need to be spoken? Going back to the classic film 12 Angry Men, does yelling “I’ll kill you” not always mean it? Should only physical actions constitute genuine threat? Though these questions may seem trivial, in an era of “Stand Your Ground” legislation they are important.
Hotheads need to know that a simple “f–k you” is not a sufficient threat. Hotheads need to know that “I’ll f–king kill you” could justify an unpleasant response.
As a citizen I dislike reading “had words” as a description of the event occurring prior to violence. I want to know who said what and how they said it. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a bibliophile, but words matter. Tone matters. As a husband and father who might one day be faced with an angry individual or group who means harm to me or my family, I want to know where the line is.
I dislike the excessive ambiguity of “Stand Your Ground” legislation but respect its aim. I will protect myself and my family from a threat I deem genuine. And, in securing that protection, I will not err on the side of restraint.
But what do courts and legislatures consider genuine threats? It is likely that Michael Dunn, inside his own mobile vehicle which offered both armor and the ability to escape, did not face a genuine threat. But it still matters what was said by Davis, because words provide important context.
Without clarifications “Stand Your Ground” is woefully arbitrary. Young white women of slight stature are virtually guaranteed, through jury and judicial bias, to enjoy the greatest protection under the law. Older black and Hispanic men who are tall and physically fit are virtually guaranteed the least protection. The least courts and legislatures should do, and must do, is define when words become threats. Should an interaction not rise to this level there is no justification for reaching for any weapon.
Leaving the pre-violence explanation to “they exchanged words” is unhelpful and allows problematic implementation of “Stand Your Ground” to continue.