Youth Justice


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

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