On November 23, 2012, while parked at a Gate Gas Station in Jacksonville, Florida, Michael Dunn shot into the Red Durango SUV parked next to him, murdering 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Dunn claimed that after asking the four African-American teenagers inside the car to turn down the blaring music, he was threatened by one of them, Davis. He testified that he believed that his life was in danger and that he thought Davis had a shotgun, so he began firing. As the SUV backed up and sped away, Dunn continued to fire and then fled the scene. He claimed self-defense, but never called the police. The police never found a weapon or firearm in the Durango. All they found was Davis’ slain, lifeless, teenage body.
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Michael Dunn was convicted last week of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for firing at the three teenagers who were in the car with Davis, but, controversially, the jury was hung when it came to a first-degree murder conviction for shooting and killing Davis. Dunn will be going to prison for a long time, but many feel that with a mistrial, there is no justice for the unarmed teenager’s parents.
This trial received national attention because of Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” Law, which allows an individual to shoot first if he feels his life is in danger. Stand Your Ground represents a disturbing mindset: if one fears for his life, he can start shooting.
This is particularly worrying when considering that fearing for one’s life can arise from an unwarranted fear of those who are different from us. I do not believe that Dunn’s life was actually threatened. I believe he saw a teenager talk back to him - which is standard practice for teenagers - and he felt threatened. I believe he felt threatened because Davis looked different than him and listened to different music than him – music that he associated with threatening people. The Dunn case shows us that when the law allows a person to respond to his subjective feeling of fear with an action that can take the life of another person, tragedies occur.
Jewish law teaches that when threatened, we must defend ourselves. However, Maimonides clearly teaches in Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Rotzeach 1:13 that one must not use excessive force when doing so. If he does, then he should be judged as a murderer. When it comes to Stand Your Ground, how can we define “excessive?” Must the force match that posed by the threatening opponent? Must it overcome the other’s force, so as to quell the threat, and, if so, how do we measure having gone to far? Stand Your Ground provides no definitive answer.
Perhaps the answer is not in how far we must go to defend ourselves in order to quell the threat, but rather how to avoid being unwarrantedly threatened in the first place. The Torah teaches us to respect all individuals and to embrace them. The commandment to welcome the stranger - to embrace those who are different from us – appears more times in the Torah than any other commandment. We are taught that each of us is made in God’s image and, thus, we must recognize the Divine spark in each individual; we must care about every life. Perhaps if we were more focused on embracing the other, we would be less likely to fear them.
These teachings do not stop at the level of the self. Hillel, in Pirkei Avot 2:4, teaches that we must not separate ourselves from the community. When one child dies by the bullet - regardless of the color of his skin, the music he listens to, or where he lives - we all must take a stand. We cannot sit and watch the media report about this tragedy and refuse to do all that is in our power to limit future casualties of gun violence. We cannot study Torah and ignore the Torah’s call for justice. We have an obligation, as God’s partners in creation, to save lives. As we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), if we save a life, we save an entire world. But if we let even a single life be destroyed, we destroy an entire world. Stand Your Ground is ending too many innocent lives; it is destroying this world. It’s time for us all to stand up to Stand Your Ground.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as part of the clergy team at the Jacksonville Jewish Center in Jacksonville, FL. You can follow more of his thoughts on his personal blog and on Twitter: @JMOlitzky