Florida's new "Trayvon Martin shooting"

Even as the murder-suicide of pro football player Jovan Belcher grabs the headlines, another shooting incident from Florida is being described as an echo of the Trayvon Martin – George Zimmerman incident.  This time the scene was a convenience store in Jacksonville on November 23, where a 45-year-old white man named Michael Dunn approached an SUV occupied by black teenager Jordan Davis and three of his friends.

The kids were playing their music at a very high volume.  Dunn, who was in town with his girlfriend for his son’s wedding, asked them to turn it down.  A heated verbal altercation ensued.  Dunn then claims he saw someone inside the SUV brandish a shotgun.  Dunn had a legal handgun, although the police have not confirmed whether he had  concealed-carry permit.  He fired eight shots into the vehicle, killing Davis.  The police did not find any weapons in the vehicle, although Dunn’s lawyer has suggested they had time to ditch any firearms they might have been carrying.

According to his lawyer, Dunn acted “as any responsible firearms would have.”  To put it mildly, that’s a stretch, since according to NBC News he drove away from the scene, spent a night with his girlfriend at a hotel, then fled back to his home in Georgia when he learned from the news that he’d killed one of the people in the SUV.  Even if one grants that he was rattled from the incident, and honestly believed he had peppered the large sport-utility vehicle with bullets but had not injured anyone, flight from the scene to a hotel room – and then across state lines – is a long way from “responsible.”

There are a number of important differences between this incident and the Trayvon Martin shooting, not least of which is that Dunn has been arrested and charged with both murder and attempted murder.  There are numerous witnesses to the shooting, and probably convenience store security camera footage, so there isn’t much doubt about the sequence of events.  The only loose end is the possible presence of a weapon inside the SUV, but even if Dunn were telling the truth about it, the mere presence of a firearm inside the vehicle would not justify Dunn opening fire (unless they were aiming it at him, which some media accounts say will be his claim in court.)

Still, you’ll have trouble finding a news report from either local or national sources that doesn’t mention Trayvon Martin.  The racial elements are the obvious reason, with each case involving an older white or “white Hispanic” man shooting a black teenager.  Judging by the anguished “open letter” from Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, George Zimmerman is back to being just plain “white” for the purposes of this discussion:

Harris-Perry imagines this story to be part of an epidemic of rampaging white men shooting black teenagers, when in fact only 8 percent of black murders are committed by whites. “It’s been barely a year since the killing of Trayvon Martin resurrected that old angst, long buried, but always there just below the surface, you know, that feeling,” she said.  “It`s the one that makes us hear about Trayvon, now Jordan Davis, and reach back across decades into our history for the name of another boy named Emmett Till.  Then, it was a whistle at a white woman.  Now, it’s a hooded sweatshirt or music being played loudly from a car, but always this. One thing has been the same.  No presumption of innocence for young black men, no benefit of the doubt, guilt, not determined by what they did or said, but presumed to be inherent in their very being.  They need not wield the weapon to pose a threat, because if you are a young black man, you are threat enough.  And in yet another case, it seems that perceived threat is justification enough for someone who would play judge, and jury and executioner.”

As NewsBusters points out, she doesn’t seem very interested in extending any “presumption of innocence” to middle-aged “white Hispanics,” since George Zimmerman hasn’t been convicted of anything yet.  And if this is such a bloody epidemic, why does she have to “reach back across decades into our history” to add a third name to the list?

The answer lies in the fallacy of constructing policy by incident. A high-profile case draws so much attention that in the minds of some media figures, it counts as a thousand incidents, because they talk about it a thousand times as much.  Meanwhile, there is no comparable coverage afforded to incidents that don’t buttress the case they want to make.  To bring today’s other big gun-control story into the discussion, there are no screaming media headlines and half-time ideological harangues when a woman uses a legal firearm to protect herself from domestic violence.  The only fighting chance Kasandra Perkins had to survive a muderous assault from Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher would have been a gun in her hands, no matter what weapon he decided to use, including his fists.  But you don’t hear about such things on the evening news, so they don’t take up much space in the national discussion.  Neither do the sadly ubiquitous black-on-black shootings that claim so many lives.

There’s plenty of sound-bite ammunition to push the “high-strung white guys shooting black teenagers” narrative.  For example, NBC News quotes a Jacksonville police detective saying that Davis’ friends admitted that the music they were playing on the evening of their fateful encounter with Dunn was loud, but “that’s not a reason for someone to open fire.”  No, it’s not… but that’s not the reason Dunn opened fire, nor have any witnesses to the incident testified as much.  The loud music led to a verbal altercation, and that led to the shooting.

It’s not letting Dunn off the hook for his actions to insist on relating the chain of events accurately… or else casual news consumers will soon be convinced the incident was nothing but a crazy white guy marching over to a car and pumping it full of lead because he was annoyed by loud music.  And it should be possible to consider, and criticize, the actions of the teens during this altercation without saying they deserved to get shot.  It should be possible to simultaneously think Dunn, if found guilty of the charges, deserves to feel the full force of the law, and say that teenagers shouldn’t be disturbing the peace or engaging in vicious verbal exchanges with people who ask them to turn their radios down.

But instead, everything is over-simplified until we’re back to blaming the gun for the crime.  (Why not blame the car stereo, too?)  Davis’ mother doesn’t see a racial dimension to the incident – she said she thinks Dunn was “in a dark place” and “snapped” during the encounter, but reportedly doesn’t believe the shooting was a “hate crime.”  Davis’ father, on the other hand, wants to take on Florida’s concealed-carry gun laws, telling USA Today that “law enforcement should be the only people who should have guns on the street… that’s what’s killing our kids more than anything.”

And of course, there’s plenty of chin-pulling from gun-control advocates over Florida’s “stand your ground” laws, even though they haven’t been formally invoked at the time of this writing, and most experts doubt they would be applicable should Dunn and his lawyers decide to make such a claim.  With all due respect for Jordan Davis’ grieving father, he’s entirely incorrect: law-abiding gun owners are not what is “killing our kids more than anything.”  But you wouldn’t know it from the volume of media coverage, or the way politically interested parties work to weave unrelated incidents into grand narratives.