50.50: Opinion

American gun violence is so bad that countries should warn against US travel

OPINION: The ‘land of the free’ is currently a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ nation. It’s not safe

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
25 April 2023, 10.02am

Protest held on 18 April 2023 in front of US District Court in Kansas City, Missouri on behalf of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, shot by an 84-year-old white homeowner after going to the wrong house to pick up his brother


Chase Castor/Getty Images

I am tired of writing about gun violence in the United States and the abject failure of our political system to provide a means of effectively addressing the problem.

But here I am revisiting the topic, because horrific recent incidents are generating headlines. And, while mass shooting incidents have skyrocketed since 2018, after which each year has seen more than one such event per day, it’s not just mass shootings Americans have to worry about.

Since two individuals were shot within four days of each other – one fatally – simply for accidentally approaching the wrong house, the US public sphere is currently abuzz with discussion of the so-called ‘stand your ground laws’ that have been passed in more than half of the 50 states since 2005.

Superseding the common law ‘castle doctrine’ that provides wide latitude for the use of deadly force against an intruder inside one’s home, stand your ground laws expand this laxity to public spaces, where, the American legal norm otherwise holds that individuals have a ‘duty to retreat’ from violent confrontation if possible.

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The first US state to pass a ‘stand your ground law’ was (not especially surprisingly) Florida. (At this point, all southern states have them.) The issue does not seem to have generated much media buzz, however, until 2012, when George Zimmerman, a light-skinned Latino and neighbourhood watch captain, fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager who was simply trying to walk back to his father’s home in a gated community in Sanford, where he was staying.

Zimmerman’s trial – he was found not guilty for reasons of ‘self-defence’ in what many, myself included, consider an egregious miscarriage of justice – did not ultimately hinge on Florida’s stand your ground law. But this series of events highlighted the racist differential treatment with respect to gun laws that is pervasive in the US legal system, and the potential for stand your ground laws to falsely ‘legitimise’ even more white violence against Black Americans than was already occurring.

On 13 April, Black high school student Ralph Yarl misinterpreted directions about where to pick up his brothers and ended up going to the wrong house in Kansas City, Missouri. After Yarl rang the doorbell, homeowner Andrew Lester, an 84-year old white man, opened the main door and immediately shot Yarl in the head through the glass exterior door. He then shot Yarl a second time, in the arm. Lester reportedly said: “Don’t come around here,” as the 16-year-old Yarl, who is thankfully and remarkably on the road to recovery, attempted to retreat.

Missouri has a stand your ground law and, given the state’s reactionary politics and the facts that Yarl is Black and Lester is white, it is likely that Lester will be acquitted of the felony charges of assault in the first degree and armed criminal action that he faces. If stand your ground comes into play, Lester will, theoretically, have to convincingly demonstrate he had a “reasonable fear” that Yarl would harm him. From what we know about the shooting, it seems absurd to think that Lester could make such a case, but conservative American juries often do not take much convincing when a white defendant stands accused of violence against an African American person.

On 17 April, a 20-year-old white woman, Kaylin Gillis, turned into the wrong driveway in upstate New York. Kevin Monahan, the 65-year-old white homeowner who killed her, now faces second-degree murder charges. New York does not have a stand your ground law, so Monahan’s defence presumably faces a higher bar.

What both these shootings have in common – besides the fact that both occurred in conservative areas – is that they could happen to anyone (of course American white supremacy makes it more likely for African Americans in these situations to face violence). Who among us is immune from getting our directions mixed up in confusing or simply unfamiliar neighbourhoods? The thought that such a commonplace mistake could cost us our lives is absolutely chilling. And as it turns out, the two incidents that made recent headlines are far from isolated.

Meanwhile, like mass shootings, road rage shootings have also surged in recent years. According to a disturbing new report by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organisation, incidents have steeply risen year after year since 2018. The report states that one American was “shot and either injured or killed in a road rage incident in 2022 every 16 hours, on average”.

Using data from the Gun Violence Archive, the report notes that road rage shootings occur in every US state, but that there are patterns.

Southern states, which on the whole have particularly lax gun laws, experience “the highest rates of victimisation from road rage shootings” according to the report. By contrast, the north-eastern states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont have the lowest rates of road rage shootings – about half those, per capita, that occur in southern states. These states have much stricter gun laws. Compare, for example, Florida’s rate of 1.64 road rage shootings per million residents to New York’s rate of 0.7 per one million residents.

Another study found similar stark regional differences in all gun homicides as opposed to just road rage incidents. The deep south has by far the highest per capita gun homicide rate, which makes Republicans’ claims that America’s progressive cities are “war zones” absurd.

While other factors may be in play –for example, public intellectual Colin Woodard argues that policy is ”downstream from culture” and attributes regional differences in gun violence to the cultural legacies of distinct groups of colonisers – Everytown for Gun Safety’s report provides clear cut evidence that a serious approach to gun control reduces gun violence rates. Unfortunately, acting on this obvious fact at the national level would require not only a strength of political will too often lacking among Democrats, but also the cooperation of some Republicans.

Frankly, as sad as it is to say this, if I were an official serving in another country’s foreign ministry, I would recommend that that government issue a warning against travel to the United States – and especially its most violent regions. There’s just no avoiding the conclusion that for the time being, the ‘land of the free’ will remain a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ nation.

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