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Gun Laws and Race in America

by ROBERT CHASE and YOHURU WILLIAMS

“The simple fact is we are not safe. Not in our homes, not anywhere…People now cannot walk on their streets without fear of crime!”” Interestingly, these are not the words of those around the nation currently seeking justice by protesting the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman found “not guilty” of slaying Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Rather these were the words of admonition and fear used by Jeb Bush to kick-off his 1998 campaign for Governor of Florida. Once in office, Bush burnished his law and order credentials by pushing through two laws that now stand at the heart of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman controversy.

The first, “Stand Your Ground” (SYG), extends the Castle Doctrine of no “duty to retreat” beyond the home and into public space. The second, that has received less media attention, is the 10-20-life mandatory minimum gun laws that mock any notion of equal justice in their disproportionate application against people of color. Although scores of pundits have taken to the airways in recent days to profess to us all that the law is color blind, the implementation of both these two cornerstone Bush-era statues demonstrate disturbing racial disparities and deeply historically rooted mythologies concerning public fears over guns and race.

With the catchy legislative slogan of “Use a Gun and You’re Done,” the 10-20-life law implemented in 1999 set mandatory minimum sentences in Florida for any convicted felon who carried, displayed, or used a gun during a crime. Rather than act as a separate charge, these mandatory minimums were to serve as “sentence enhancements,” denying even a judge’s ability to lessen the sentence. Under the law, penalties escalate depending on the use of the firearm. In cases of simple possession, those convicted receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years; those that use a gun receive 10 years; those that fire a gun receive 20 years; and if a victim was injured or killed by a gun during a crime, the state imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of  25 years to life in prison. By receiving a “not guilty” verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman also escaped the mandatory minimum requirement.

This surprised few familiar with the criminal justice system in Florida, however. Since Governor Bush signed off on the 10-20-life law in 1999, African Americans have made up the largest percentage (64 percent – 2,482) convicted under the law. Whites, by contrast, account for only 33 percent (1,284) of the convictions, and Hispanics only 2.6 percent (Florida Department of Corrections, 1999-2006). This racial disparity is even more glaring when reviewing the length of the sentences imposed by race. Perhaps, not surprisingly, African Americans receive much longer sentences (a mean of over 8 years). In addition, 59 of the life sentences imposed were on African Americans compared with only 19 for whites.

In addition, to political capital garnered from these laws, the Florida legislature recognized another “benefit.” Prior to enacting the 10-20-Life law, lawmakers reviewed how this statute might affect the state prison system. The legislators discovered that a booming prison construction business in the 1990s left the state with a surplus of 4,000 to 5,000 prison beds. With “zero tolerance” for those that carried or used a firearm during the commission of a crime, this new proposed legislation promised to “make our streets safer” by filling the prison system with 3,887 new inmates who had longer stays in Florida’s prisons because they carried or used a gun.

The second cornerstone law of the Bush governorship was “Stand Your Ground”, which extends the castle doctrine of self protection to shared public spaces. Although the Zimmerman defense team chose not to evoke a “Stand Your Ground” hearing in which George Zimmerman would have to testify and answer for his contradictory public statements, we should place

Trayvon Martin’s shooting within the context of a national trend that shows that states that have “Stand Your Ground” laws have experienced more homicides. According to a 2012 study by two researchers at Texas A&M University – economics professors Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra – the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with a “Stand Your Ground” law. This has meant an additional 600 homicides annually in states that have enacted such laws. In Florida alone, a recent study by the Tampa Bay Times found a racial disparity of SYG immunity from prosecution. In a case sample of 200 “Stand Your Ground” hearings, the Tampa Bay Times found that seventy-three percent of those that killed a Black person avoided prosecution, while only 59 percent of those who killed a White person were given immunity.

Moreover, in a study of “justified” homicides, which are defined by the FBI as those incidents in which a private citizen kills someone who is committing a felony, John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center found in SYG states that Whites were more likely to be found as “justified” when killing an African American than another White person. In an analysis of the Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) submitted by local law enforcement to the FBI between 2005 and 2010, Roman found in SYG states that when the shooter is White and the victim is White, the percentage of shootings ruled justifiable are 11 percent. When the shooter is Black and the victim also Black, the rate of “justifiable” homicides is 8 percent. However, when the shooter is White and the victim is Black, the “justifiable” rate jumps to 34 percent. While clothed in the language of legal color blindness, the real-life implementation of “Stand Your Ground” law has simultaneously increased the number of homicides while also threatening to provide legal “justification” for the killing of Black people by White persons.

The story of Jacksonville, Florida resident Marissa Alexander speaks to the disturbing double-sided racial nature of these two supposed “color-blind” gun laws. In 2010, Alexander fired a warning shot in the air when her husband, who had a history of domestic violence, threatened her. In 2012, however, a Florida judge rejected her plea to be included under the “Stand Your Ground” law. As a result, she received a 20-year sentence under the mandatory minimum allowed by the 10-20-life law. Her story and Trayvon Martin’s killing provide the starkly ironic reminder that the “we” Jeb Bush spoke of in 1999 was far from inclusive. The fate of two shooters, one “White-Hispanic” and one Black, speaks to the highly problematic racial nature of such laws in a state where guns and gun violence are simultaneously sanctioned as “justified” weapons of self-protection for Whites, on the one hand, and yet imbued with a deep fear of armed African Americans, on the other. As the nation grapples with the injustice that Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander experienced, we should recall that Bush-era crime and justice policies have simultaneously criminalized African Americans and endangered the lives of Black people. Indeed, these cases remind the nation that African Americans in Florida and in other “Stand Your Ground” states are “not safe, not in our homes, not anywhere.”

Robert Chase is Assistant Professor of History at the State University of New York, Stonybrook (SUNY, Stonybrook).

Yohuru Williams is Chair and Professor of History at Fairfield University.

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