Another racially charged shooting, this time in Detroit, has restarted the debate about American gun culture.
You’ll remember all too well the antecedent in Florida involving Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African American in a hoodie who was killed on his way home from the store by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman with a pistol on his hip. The Detroit case concerns Renisha McBride, an unarmed 19-year-old black woman shot and killed by a white homeowner in the middle of the night under circumstances that are still murky.
McBride’s violent death is certain to command national attention. Murder charges against the homeowner, announced on Friday, elicited praise from some black community leaders. Four blunt points to consider as the debate unfolds:
1. We don’t know what happened before McBride’s killing, and it matters. The shooter, Theodore Wafer, has told police he believed the young woman was breaking into his house during the early morning hours of Nov. 2. Wafer has pled not guilty to second-degree murder. The Wayne County (Mich.) prosecutor, Kym Worthy, said Friday that her office found no evidence of an attempted break-in and that McBride had been knocking on Wafer’s door, apparently in distress after a car accident nearby. An autopsy showed that McBride was intoxicated, her blood alcohol level twice the legal limit for driving. Witnesses to the car accident have said she seemed disoriented after the crash and wandered off into the night.
What happened before Wafer fired? Did he have any reason to be frightened? Did he pull the trigger intentionally or by mistake? The answers will—or should—determine whether the murder charge sticks. Recall that a jury ultimately acquitted Trayvon Martin’s killer, finding reasonable doubt about George Zimmerman’s actions.
2. Once again, race matters. The Michigan prosecutor, Worthy, has declared that in the McBride case “race is not relevant.” If she really thinks that, she’s the only one. “We’re happy we got a charge in this case; that’s progress,” the Reverend Charles Williams II told the New York Times. ”But this whole situation tells us that there is still work to do when it comes to race in America.”
White gun owners siding with Wafer are going to stress that Worthy is black. Black leaders are going to emphasize that the McBride case is the third high-profile racially charged episode this year, following the Martin acquittal and the recent police shooting of a man in North Carolina after he sought help following a car accident. Like it or not, Americans have race on their minds. Suspicions and hostilities, rational and otherwise, will play out again as McBride’s death receives scrutiny.
3. Some liberals will capitalize on McBride’s death with dubious calls for gun control. In an editorial on Saturday, the Times noted: “In a nation armed to the teeth, the wrong circumstances and misunderstandings lead to sudden death and injury in thousands of cases a year. Lawmakers should consider the lives cut short like Ms. McBride’s when they fail to tighten gun safety laws.” Widespread civilian ownership of firearms doubtless makes some violent encounters more lethal. If Wafer had come to his door with a baseball bat, McBride probably wouldn’t have died. Still, the vague suggestion that there’s a gun law to tighten that would have saved McBride raises the question: What law? Wafer wielded a traditional 12-gauge shotgun, not a weapon that’s on anyone’s proposed ban list. He reportedly owned the weapon legally. So what law does the Times have in mind?
For better and worse, Americans believe they have a Second Amendment right to keep a firearm in their home. The Supreme Court happens to agree. If law-abiding citizens have a right to have a gun at home, unintended killings will occur. This understanding of the Second Amendment implies a trade-off: the liberty to keep a gun in exchange for the danger the gun will be misused. The criminal and/or civil justice systems may offer some after-the-fact remedy for the McBride killing. But short of repealing the Second Amendment—and good luck with that—it’s not obvious how tinkering with gun regulations would prevent such events.
4. Acknowledging the Second Amendment does not excuse gun owners from being careful. Just because Wafer has a right to own a shotgun doesn’t mean he has to answer his door with finger on trigger (if in fact he did). With rights come obligations. In charging Wafer, prosecutor Worthy determined that he didn’t meet the requirements of Michigan’s self-defense law. In that state, a homeowner does not have an obligation to retreat. Deadly force may be used, however, only if the homeowner “honestly and reasonably” believes it’s necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm. Further investigation and a public trial, one hopes, will provide the information we need to decide whether Worthy is correct or Wafer acted in a reasonable manner.