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Child Watch® Column: "Killed by a Gun"

Release Date: February 21, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

The headlines in the case were sadly familiar. An angry adult armed with a gun used it to shoot and kill an unarmed Black teenager he thought seemed “bad”—this time, because the teenager and his friends were sitting in a car listening to music the grownup didn’t like. In this outrageous Florida case a middle-aged White man, Michael Dunn, was convicted of three counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting a gun into an occupied car. Jurors agreed he faced no threat after he was annoyed by loud music—coming from a car he had deliberately chosen to park next to—and then started an argument, pulled a gun on the car’s Black teens, and fired three shots at the young men inside the car as they tried to drive away from him.

But the jury could not agree on the most serious charge of first-degree murder for shooting the first seven bullets at the stationary car and hitting 17-year-old Jordan Davis in his lung, liver, and aorta. Florida’s notorious “Stand Your Ground” law which gives gun owners a license to kill if they feel threatened was allegedly enough for three jurors to vote against conviction. At least one juror said she believed Michael Dunn did get away with murder: “There is no longer a Jordan Davis, and there is only one reason why that is. The boy was shot and killed for reasons that should not have happened.”

In an interview with Good Morning America Jordan’s mother, Lucia McBath, said she believed the jurors in her son’s case did the best they could with the laws they had, but also made it clear she believes our nation’s existing laws did not protect Jordan or millions of other victims of gun violence in America. When asked what justice for her son would look like she answered: “Justice for Jordan will be, ultimately, really when we change the laws. Because that will be not just justice for Jordan, and justice for Trayvon, and justice for all the children at Sandy Hook, and justice for Aurora, and justice for Virginia Tech, and the Navy Yard—it will be justice for everyone that has suffered because of these laws, and will continue to suffer. So once the laws are changed, that’s the ultimate justice for all.”

Researchers at Texas A&M University studied the impact of Stand Your Ground laws, like the one enacted in Florida in 2005, across the country and concluded in a 2012 study that “the laws do not deter burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault” but do “lead to a statistically significant 8 percent net increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters.” Evidence is also clear that these laws have a disparate racial impact. Researchers from the Urban Institute found that when White shooters kill Black victims, 34 percent of the homicides are deemed justifiable, while only 3.3 percent are ruled justifiable when the situation is reversed.

Now researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research have released the results of a new study on the effectiveness of another crucial segment of our nation’s gun laws: those requiring background checks before purchasing a gun. For this study the scholars took a close look at the state of Missouri’s 2007 repeal of its permit-to-purchase law. Before it was repealed this law required all handgun purchasers in Missouri to obtain a license verifying that they had passed a background check. The researchers wanted to know what happened when this requirement was taken away—and they learned that repealing that law has led to a 16 percent increase in Missouri’s murder rate. The study showed between 2008 and 2012 there were an additional 55 to 63 murders in Missouri each year associated with the law’s repeal. During those same years, the national murder rate dropped by over 5 percent.

The research controlled for changes in policing, incarceration, burglaries, unemployment, poverty, and other laws adopted during the study period that could affect violent crime. The spike in murders only occurred for murders committed with a gun and happened statewide, while bordering states showed no increase. The number of handguns recovered from scenes of crimes or from criminals quickly doubled after the repeal. In a press release, lead author Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said: “This study provides compelling confirmation that weaknesses in firearm laws lead to deaths from gun violence.” Co-author Jon Vernick, JD, MPH, deputy director for the Center for Gun Policy and Research, added: “Because many perpetrators of homicide have backgrounds that would prohibit them from possessing firearms under federal law, they seek out private sellers to acquire their weapons. Requiring a background check on all gun sales is a commonsense approach to reducing gun violence that does not infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Requiring a background check seems like common sense to most Americans—and yet some lawmakers refuse to make it happen. Others, like those in Missouri, are actually moving backwards. The same press release noted: “Only fifteen states require individuals purchasing handguns from unlicensed sellers to pass background checks, with ten of these states requiring all purchasers to acquire a permit-to-purchase license. A 2013 public opinion survey from Johns Hopkins found the majority of Americans (89 percent) and gun owners (84 percent) support requiring a background check system for all gun sales. The majority of Americans (77 percent) and gun owners (59 percent) also reported supporting requiring people to obtain a license from a local law-enforcement agency before buying a gun to verify their identity and ensure that they are not legally prohibited from having a gun.”

This latest Johns Hopkins study is another key step in finding out what works to reduce gun violence. The available evidence is clear: Stand Your Ground laws do not reduce gun violence. Background checks do—just one part of a network of solutions that can help. We need a robust commitment to much more research on the epidemic public health threat of gun violence to identify all of them. And when we know what works, we need leaders who will listen to and act on the research and public opinion to preserve lives. We do not need any more suffering families. Jordan Davis’s father Ron said: “All the other 17-year-olds out there—they shouldn’t have to fear the adults with the guns that are running around here shooting them at will. If you throw popcorn in someone’s face, they want to shoot you because you threw popcorn in their face. That’s what we’ve come to. But we have to stop.”

We really do have to stop!


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by TR at: March 1, 2014
People are "killed by guns" - they are killed by PEOPLE with guns. I have been shooting since the age of 6 and have owned guns since the age of 18. In the last 30+ years, my guns have NEVER done a thing by themselves. I can leave my safe unlocked and open for weeks, with an ample supply of ammunition readily available, but nothing ever happens. The ones that are older than I am never move and even the new ones just sit there. Bottom line - it takes a PERSON to load them and pull the trigger/

Submitted by Zee at: February 28, 2014
I agree in part with the article, however I also believe that until the African American community takes a stand on a national level and clearly recognizes these acts and laws for what they really are we will allow our children to continue to be murdered with no real justice being delivered. Racism is alive a well and living in our American cities and because we have never experienced any thing other than racist laws, racist law enforcement, racist courts, racist public education systems, racist city planning, racist public services, and racist religious groups we have accepted this as our normal life here in America.

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 25, 2014
Great article regarding such a tragedy that is occuring across this nation. Life has now been designated as an indangered species. The death culture is everywhere. Which culture will win?

Submitted by Neal D. at: February 23, 2014
Back ground checks may help for a day or a week.... but guns have a long functional life....... years, maybe 50 or more. The gun is the problem, not the buyer.

Submitted by Marico at: February 23, 2014
People clearly do not value the lives of our young Black men. Had the situation been reversed the shooter would have been charged and convicted ASAP, without hesitationh. We All know this to be true

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 22, 2014
I grieve for the loss of Jordan Davis. All violence is a tragedy. Having been a victim of violence myself I know emotional scars are left long after the ordeal is over. Having said this, I can't help but notice how you clarified that some were black and one was white. Do you feel the same about violence when the colors are turned? How about the heinous crime committed against Shannon Christian and Chris Newsom? That torture slaying should have been in the national media for months, but was not. Had their skin color been opposite than what it was would people have reacted to it differently? All violence is a waste of life regardless of how it is committed. I am all for background checks to buy firearms, but the criminals will always get them. Do you really think breaking the law by having/using an illegal gun is a problem for them?

Submitted by Single Parent at: February 22, 2014
A new perspective.

Submitted by donnajeanne at: February 22, 2014
Stand your ground law should begin with these words "Whites Only". Black people who have tried to use this law are found guilty and locked up for 20 years even when a shot was fired and didn't hit anyone!

Submitted by jenrae at: February 22, 2014
This country is obsessed with guns. The historical founding of the NRA was due to the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, so a perceived threat was now upon all white landowners. Florida's Stand Your Ground Law (a southern state), in my humble opinion, can be compared to those original reasons for the creation of the NRA.

Submitted by Char at: February 21, 2014
Where there are guns, there is more violence. Where guns are not kept locked, more children die. Where guns are available, people in despair are more likely to commit suicide. Once they've shot themselves at close range, there is little possibility of helping them. When people with trigger fast anger have guns, innocent people are killed. When some men hold guns, no matter what the circumstances, they appointment themselves judge, jury, and executioner. These people do not deserve to live in society. They are a danger. The blood of the innocent cry out for justice. but when men decide to take justice into their own hands, then murder is committed. we chartered a democratic society, but it is looking more and more like "Animal Farm" by George Orwell. All animals are created equal,but some animals are more equal then others, and the animals with guns ironically feel superior to the animals without. How sad.....That is not the true worth of a real man.For all the scientific and educational progress of our society, people in their relationships create the same sorrows over and over. We are all on this fragile little planet together. It is so necessary to learn to live in peace with each other, on small and grand scales.Lord, hear our prayer.

Submitted by Chucklesnhope at: February 21, 2014
when the laws that we have regarding automobiles, licensing, proof of competent tests, insurance, registration, and MORE we can begin to feel some security. Stand your ground laws will never be just as long as people who have murder in their hearts are allowed to own guns.

Submitted by Dick at: February 21, 2014
I could not agree more with the proposals for stiff gun legislation expressed here - all of them and for all 50 states. I personally am outraged that a supposedly civilized nation allows the arms lobby and the NRA to dictate not only our laws re. gun possession but their very sale and manufacture - as well as frame the entire debate in a spurious manner in terms of our constitution. If our law makers do not show some courage and moral responsibility and take decisive action to get control of this situation soon, I see a continued and growing blood bath and inevitable grief. And I have to ask, are we not simply replaying the fallacious and tired Hollywood myth of the gun toting strong man of the Old West: When insulted or in doubt, shoot first, scream and shout"? Is this the way to protect and mentor our children? Do we as a nation not have the integrity to simply "grow up"?

Submitted by Tom Moritz at: February 21, 2014
Thank you -- all teenagers are at risk -- often because they are trying to come to terms with being an adult human being -- but our current suite of laws in states like Florida place young black men that at risk of execution merely for trying to come to terms with what it means to be a young black man...

Submitted by Anne Fava at: February 21, 2014
Absolutely horrific! Beyond appalling & heart wrenching especially as a mother. We must get rid of guns!!!!!

Submitted by allenv at: February 21, 2014
If the author cared about having credibility she would have not have cherry picked statistics. The most logical explaintion is she was preaching to a choir of intellectualy lazy people she knew would not fact check anything but her cherry picked facts if anything at all.

Submitted by Carol at: February 21, 2014
Let us know what we can do to save our children. This needs to change now. We are all in this together. Retired teacher, Carol

Submitted by DolCane at: February 21, 2014
I am sure there is more to the story than what is shared in this very biased article. Why is it that black teenagers are always the innocent "victims"? Were you there? If not then keep your biased opinions to yourself.

Submitted by 2nd Amendment Supporter at: February 21, 2014
We have the right to keep and bear arms, to meet deadly force with deadly force period.

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 21, 2014
Thank you. The sister speaks for me.

Submitted by Vee at: February 21, 2014
Actually Dunn fired 9 shots of which 3 mortally wounded Jordan and some of the shots were fired as the teens drove away to get help for Koran. And yet Dunn says he was the victim . This stand your ground law must be abolished