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Closing Argument

When ‘Shoot-First Culture’ Meets ‘Fear and Paranoia’

In less than a week, seven people were shot after doing the ordinary — ringing a doorbell or turning around in a driveway.

Protesters at a park hold signs that reads "Too many mothers is grieving, they killing us for no reason," "They killing kids, wondering why the summer so cold. Justice for Ralph Yarl!!" and "Say his name, justice for Ralph Yarl."  People with bullhorns and cameras stand in the background.
People in Kansas City, Mo., gather at a rally for Ralph Yarl on April 18. Yarl, a Black teenager, was shot last week by a White resident when he mistakenly went to the wrong address to pick up his younger brothers.

At least seven people were shot — one fatally — for showing up at the wrong place, in separate incidents over the course of just six days earlier this month.

Kaylin Gillis, 20, was shot and killed in Hebron, New York, as a car she was traveling in turned around in a stranger’s driveway. Ralph Yarl, 16, was shot in Kansas City, Missouri, after ringing the wrong doorbell. Payton Washington, 18, and Heather Roth, 21, were shot in Elgin, Texas after Washington accidentally got into, and then quickly exited, a stranger's car in a parking lot. In Gaston County, North Carolina, when children went to retrieve a basketball from a stranger’s backyard, he allegedly came out of his house with a gun and fired, striking 6-year-old Kinsley White and her father.

According to The New York Times, these kinds of wrong-place shootings are uncommon relative to the larger backdrop of American gun violence — but that’s a big backdrop. Even a small fraction of 49,000 gun deaths per year adds up. The Times tells the stories of several other people who were shot by trigger-happy residents when they were either lost or mistaken as a threat — including utility and maintenance workers on the job.

While wrong-place shootings may be rare, it’s quite common for gun violence to erupt over petty matters. In reporting I did several years ago, one St. Louis man told me he’d seen guns pulled over a cigarillo — literally pennies-worth of flavored tobacco.

Shortly after Yarl was shot, Kansas City police Chief Stacey Graves said that investigators would consider whether the shooter, 84-year-old Andrew Lester, might be protected by the state’s “stand your ground” laws, thrusting the legal concept into the national conversation in ways not seen since Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida over a decade ago.

“Stand your ground” is frequently conflated with “castle doctrine” and self-defense law more broadly. All three legal concepts vary in their specifics from state to state, but every state has self-defense laws that allow a person to use deadly force if they cannot retreat, and if they reasonably believe it’s necessary to prevent imminent death or bodily harm. Most states also recognize some version of the castle doctrine, which gives people the right to use deadly force against an intruder in their home without attempting to retreat.

The first stand-your-ground law passed in Florida in 2005, and similar bills exist in close to 30 states. These laws extend castle doctrine to the world beyond one’s home and allow a person to “meet force with force, including deadly force.”

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor for Reason, argues that none of the alleged shooters in these high-profile cases are likely to attempt or successfully mount a stand-your-ground defense. Sullum identifies what he calls “longstanding journalistic confusion on this subject, which misrepresents such laws as a license to kill anyone who looks at you cross-eyed.”

But “stand your ground” wasn’t actually invoked by the successful defense in George Zimmerman’s trial after he killed Trayvon Martin over a decade ago. Nevertheless, it is the case that introduced most Americans to the legal concept. In today’s conversation, “stand your ground” may, in many ways, serve as a stand-in for a cultural phenomenon of fear and preemptive aggression as much as it refers to the actual letter of the law.

“We are seeing the idea that we are a shoot-first culture,” Joshua Horwitz, a gun violence researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News. “Everybody seems to be afraid, they've been told to be afraid.” A grandson of the man who shot Yarl said that his grandfather had become immersed in “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.”

Nationally, much of that fear is about crime, and as Washington Post columnist Philip Bump put it: There is a tragic logic to wrong-place shootings. Overzealous self-defense becomes a part of daily life in “a society in which gun ownership is common, in which guns are seen as necessary tools for self-defense against crime, and in which crime is depicted, often cynically, as surging.”

Whether “stand your ground” applies directly to the cases at hand or not, research has tied the adoption of the laws to increased violence. One study published last year found that the laws were associated with “as many as 700 additional firearm killings each year.”

Racial bias is also part of the American self-defense story. A 2017 Marshall Project analysis found that killings of Black men by White people were more likely to be ruled justifiable than when the racial dynamics were reversed (which included, but was not limited to stand-your-ground cases). That may be in part because self-defense law comes down to whether a person’s fear is reasonable, and race is baked into Americans’ attitudes about fear and safety.

Another theme in recent wrong-place shootings worth noting is youth. Of the shootings that have captured attention in recent weeks, all but one of the victims were 21 or younger.

While there’s no evidence that young people are more likely to be victimized by this specific type of violence, gun deaths among U.S. minors are on the rise. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the number of children and teens who died from gunshot wounds rose 50% between 2019 and 2021, with gun violence overtaking car accidents as their leading cause of death in 2020. In a recent analysis of shootings in four major cities, Black children were 100 times more likely than White children to be victims of gun assaults.

It’s also a uniquely American problem: The U.S. accounts for 97% of all child and teen firearm deaths among its peer countries, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.