(CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

A sixteen-year-old boy in Kansas City was shot after he rang the wrong doorbell. A twenty-year-old woman in upstate New York was fatally shot after she and her friends pulled into the wrong driveway. Two cheerleaders in Texas were shot after one reportedly entered the wrong car in a parking lot. A six-year-old girl and her parents were shot in North Carolina because she raced to retrieve a basketball in a neighbor’s yard.

Each of these incidents seems like a tragic aberration. But they were all in the news within a single week in April. In fact, such shootings are all too common, though they rarely make the headlines.

The more general problem is familiar. Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in the United States, surpassing car crashes. In 2020, more than 4,300 young people died from firearm-related injuries—a 29 percent increase from 2019. Staggering numbers, but hardly surprising, given the arsenal of guns scattered across the country. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, about three in ten adults say they own a gun, and four in ten say they live in a household with a gun.

These most recent incidents of innocent people dying after making what should have been trivial errors are another grim reminder of our collective failure to address gun violence. They also demonstrate our collective failure to push back against the “castle doctrine” and stand-your-ground laws, which offer expansive legal protections for people who use deadly force against anyone they perceive to be a threat.

Often referred to as a “make my day” law, the castle doctrine is rooted in centuries-old common law. Stand-your-ground laws are a more recent phenomenon. In 2005, the Florida state legislature, enthusiastically backed by the NRA, voted to extend self-defense protections from the home into the public arena. Gun-control advocates, prosecutors, and police chiefs all warned that the law would result in needless deaths. Seven years later, George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, shot seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking home from a local store. A jury later acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder.

Rather than serving as a deterrent to crime, as proponents of the law maintain, such laws encourage a “shoot first, ask later” mentality.

Today, about thirty states have some form of stand-your-ground law, including Missouri, Texas, and North Carolina, where three of the four recent shootings occurred. The castle doctrine is currently in effect in New York state, the site of the fourth.

Rather than serving as a deterrent to crime, as proponents of the law maintain, such laws encourage a “shoot first, ask later” mentality that leads to vigilantism and increased gun violence. An Oxford University study estimates they account for seven hundred homicides per year. Such laws also apply unevenly to different racial groups. An analysis by the gun-control advocacy group Coalition to Stop Gun Violence found that the laws exacerbate racial inequalities and are more likely to be used as a successful defense in homicides involving a white shooter than a Black shooter.

What’s more, such laws normalize gun violence and perpetuate a climate of suspicion and racial animus. They literally weaponize paranoia, and they promote a private arms race in a country already drowning in guns.

With gun reform effectively stalled in Congress, and with the Biden administration seemingly content with half measures, state legislatures need to reform or repeal these deadly self-defense laws that grant legal cover to gun owners who shoot their neighbors at the slightest provocation.

Last year, in between the mass shooting in Buffalo and the child massacre in Uvalde, we wrote in these pages that “gun violence is something no decent society can afford to get used to.” But we are getting used to it, and now we are also getting used to the idea that one wrong turn could be fatal.

Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.