The Michael Dunn trial has fanned the flames of the debate over the “stand your ground” provision. I have to admit that after the Trayvon Martin incident, I got caught up in the hype and outrage surrounding the controversial case. Two years after the incident, we are still left wondering what really happened and whether or not justice was served. More recently, Jordan Davis was killed by Michael Dunn because Dunn feared for his safety after starting a confrontation with Davis and his friends. In light of the verdict rendered in the Michael Dunn trial, we are wondering again whether or not justice was served. We are also asking if the “stand your ground” provision is the cause of these incidents.
Personally, after careful consideration, I do not think the “stand your ground” provision is necessarily the problem. In my opinion, the issue is whether or not people can correctly identify if a person poses a threat or displays threatening behavior. Our perception of certain people and stereotyping is the problem we need to address. As an African American man, I can point to numerous incidents in my life in which I was perceived as a criminal or stereotyped as someone who had the potential to engage in criminal activity. I am neither, yet the perception of another person in any of these occurrences could have put me in a “stand your ground” encounter. It is a very frightening reality that could happen again at any time.
For example, suppose I am walking through a neighborhood at night. Someone sees me and their perception is I am about to engage in criminal activity. I am unarmed, but the person observing me has a gun. They approach me, and then words are exchanged. You know the rest of the story. Suppose that I am sitting in my car with a group of friends playing loud music at a convenience store. Someone sees me and stereotypes me as a “thug” whose music needs to be silenced. I am unarmed, but the person observing me has a gun. They approach me, and then words are exchanged. You know the rest of the story. In both cases, if the person believed I posed a threat, they could use deadly force and hide behind the “stand your ground” provision to avoid conviction in a court of law.
I have to give credit where credit is due. Mark O’Meara, the defense attorney in the George Zimmerman trial, has been trying to explain the intricate details of when and how to apply the “stand your ground” provision in court. Stand Your Ground is about having the right to self-defense instead of retreating if a person believes they are being threatened. If we look at it solely from this point of view, I can almost understand why juries in the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn trials had a hard time arriving at the guilty verdicts so many people expected. In both instances the men felt threatened, so they acted out of self-defense. Who really knows if they were in enough danger that they had to stand their ground instead of retreating?
The real issue in both cases was the escalation caused by the shooters based upon their perception and stereotyping of the two teenagers. This led them to carry out their own versions of “vigilante” justice. To prevent this, it is time for us to undergo some sort of ongoing training and education so that we have a clearer view of people who pose a threat and signs of impending danger. I remember as a child there was a television program called “Shoot, Don’t Shoot.” The episode walked the viewer through various situations, and the goal was to determine whether the person on the screen posed a threat. In other words, (if authorized) should the viewer shoot at them or not. It is the same training used by several police departments today. Of course, the concept needs to be modified so that people can get better at perceiving real threats while removing unnecessary stereotypes.
The goal of this would be to correctly identify threats, long before the need to confront and get into a stand your ground scenario. Vigilante justice would no longer be necessary. If George Zimmerman had this training, would he have followed Trayvon Martin leading up to his “need” to stand his ground? If Michael Dunn had this training, would he have confronted Jordan Davis leading up to his “need” to shoot at the unarmed teenagers? In my opinion, the problem is not the right of people to stand their ground. Instead, it is the inability of some people to correctly identify potential threats and avoid stereotyping. As we have seen time and time again, adding confrontation and the willingness to use deadly force in these situations is a dangerous combination. Our society must work together to prevent these unnecessary confrontations and killings at the hands of “vigilante” citizens.