Small mistakes cause big reactions

“Part of it is you guys,” said Warren Eller, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, referring to the relentless media focus on crime. “We are exposed to all the dangers 24 hours a day.”

This is no surprise. Politicians have long used crime as a wedge issue to gain a foothold. Community message boards stoke paranoia about suspicious outsiders. Local and national news broadcasts bombard television viewers daily with blurry images of surveillance video showing various crimes and provocative headlines about cities in decline.

People attended a rally in support of Ralph Yar, the black teenager who was shot and killed by a white homeowner last week after picking up his brother at the wrong address.

People attended a rally in support of Ralph Yar, the black teenager who was shot and killed by a white homeowner last week after picking up his brother at the wrong address.Credit: Associated Press

This includes shootings in which innocent victims are shot by people who wrongly believe they are threatened. While statistics on these shootings are sparse, they appear to represent a tiny fraction of the more than 15,000 gun homicides in the United States each year.

Yet in just six days in April, four young people across the country were shot — and a woman in New York — because they were in what someone thought was the wrong place. Tuesday, Man shoots, wounds two cheerleaders in Texas supermarket parking lot Some say she got into his car by mistake, thinking it was her own. A cheerleader was grazed by a bullet and was treated at the scene. Her teammate was shot in the leg and back.

This mistrust in America has developed, and while abnormal, it is less surprising than ever. Combined with legal confusion, easy access to weapons, poor gun training, and sometimes outright racism, it led to a seemingly never-ending string of shootings.

Take legal issues, for example. Shooters in such incidents often defend themselves under “stand your ground” laws, which expand people’s right to defend themselves when threatened. But these laws, which have spread across America over the past 25 years, may actually be fueling the violence.

‘That fear has to be justified by the circumstances. You can’t kill them just because you’re afraid of them.

Geoffrey Corn, Texas Tech University

A study published in 2022 by the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Network Open found that states with unrelenting laws saw an 8% to 11% increase in monthly homicide rates.

“I think there’s a general consensus that deadly force can be used whenever someone feels threatened,” said Geoffrey Corn, chair of the criminal law department at Texas Tech University School of Law, who has researched the laws extensively. He believes these laws are deeply misunderstood by the public.

“This fear has to be justified on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “You can’t kill someone just because you’re afraid of them.”

Legal experts expect Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old man who shot Yarl, to assert self-defense and invoke Missouri’s Stand Your Ground Act. On Wednesday, he pleaded not guilty.

Corn, a 22-year veteran of the military, also wonders about America’s recent boom in gun sales and whether it’s combining with inadequate training to compound the problem.

“What bothers me is not that there are a lot of guns, but that there is no need for anyone to take on the “significant responsibility”” of wielding them, Corn said. Even in states that require gun training, the training is often insufficient and self-defense laws are poorly explained, he said.

When he was in the army, he underwent weeks of training before being allowed to touch a bullet. “I’ve always been aware of the incredible lethality of guns,” he said.

Scenes from a rally following Trayvon Martin's death in Florida in 2012.

Scenes from a rally following Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida in 2012.Credit: Associated Press

Then there’s the inevitable question of race, a central pillar of American distrust for centuries.

Misconceptions about the threat posed by nonwhites have played out repeatedly in modern American history, including high-profile cases in which assailants attacked black or Hispanic people they believed to be harming them, even when there was no apparent threat.

Yarl’s shooting has drawn comparisons to the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who went to his father’s home in a gated community in Florida when George Zimmerman, a volunteer community watcher, thought he was watching looked suspicious and shot him. Zimmerman was acquitted after a trial in which his attorneys essentially used the state’s position law as a defense.

It also echoes the case of Renisha McBride, a black woman who came to her home seeking help after being involved in a car accident in 2013. She was shot and killed by a white resident who shot at his screen door, saying he feared she meant to hurt him.

Ibram X Kendi, best-selling author of racism and founder of Boston University’s Center for Anti-Racism Studies, said these cases occur because people of all races and backgrounds are raised to fear that black people are more prone to crime and violence.

“No one is inherently afraid of another person because of the color of their skin,” Kendy says. “There are so many different ways that people are told that black people are dangerous, and those ideas actually present all kinds of dangers to black people, including black teens.”

“The more we forget about this idea and realize that we can’t associate danger with color in any way, the less likely people are to use deadly force on a 16-year-old. Ring their doorbell,” he said.

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