Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to reflect new developments.
A Michigan woman’s death has joined the ranks of shootings that gun control advocates and those concerned about the dangers of racial profiling attribute to a gun owner emboldened by a “Stand your ground” law.
On Nov. 3, Detroit resident Renisha McBride was driving alone, involved in an accident and in need of help, relatives told the Detroit News, a local newspaper. Her cellphone was dead. Within minutes of knocking on the door of a house in a section of suburban Dearborn Heights, Mich., McBride was dead.
Someone behind the door of an unidentified house on Outer Drive shot McBride in the head.
McBride’s family told local reporters this week that the 19-year-old was shot in the back of the head while attempting to leave the home where she had stopped to ask for help. McBride’s aunt also told a local reporter that the young woman was disoriented after crashing into another car.
Until Thursday, police in Dearborn Heights had refused to make public even the most basic information about McBride’s shooting—exactly where it occurred, who fired the weapon, where McBride was shot or what the shooter has said to explain his or her actions. Late Thursday, Dearborn Heights Police Lt. James Serwatowski disclosed some information about the shooting that conflicted with the family's version of events and revealed only slightly more about the shooter and the incident that cost McBride her life.
Dearborn Heights police say the homeowner involved in the McBride shooting told investigators that the shotgun accidentally went off, the Detroit Free Press, another local paper, reported.
“This man’s claiming—believed the girl was breaking into the home. And he’s also saying the gun discharged accidentally,” Lt. James Serwatowski, the chief detective, told the Detroit paper.
Serwatowski also said that the family has been wrong in telling reporters that McBride was shot in the back of the head. McBride was shot in the face, according to the Free Press. “I’ll confirm that she was in an accident in Detroit and that she left the accident scene, and then some hours transpired” before the shooting, he told the Free Press.
According to Serwatowski, the shooting occurred about 3:40 a.m., and the accident happened at about 1:30 a.m. The lieutenant wouldn't comment on what the police believe happened before and after the accident.
Police seized the homeowner’s 12-gauge shotgun, and the Michigan State Police crime lab is analyzing it, Serwatowski told the Free Press.
No arrests have been made, but police in Dearborn Heights submitted a warrant request to the county prosecutor’s office on Wednesday leveling “unspecified” charges in connection with the case, the Free Press reported.
“I know the family is anxious to see this man [the alleged shooter] charged,” Serwatowski told the Free Press, “but the prosecutor’s office is telling us they want a lot more information before they make a decision.”
For the public, at least, questions remain about what, if anything, may have happened to arouse fear and suspicion after McBride knocked on the Dearborn Heights door; why someone behind the door felt the need to involve, much less use, a shotgun during the exchange; and whether the gun was accidentally or intentionally fired.
Bernita Spinks, McBride’s aunt, described her niece as a sweet person who did not get into trouble.
As a result, McBride’s family, gun control advocates and anti-“Stand your ground” activists have described her shooting death as utterly unjustified. Several have also voiced suspicions that Michigan’s “Stand your ground” law may also be shaping the local prosecutor’s response.
Activists have planned a rally at 6 p.m. on Thursday outside the Dearborn Heights Police station. “Black life is not valued in America, not worthy, not respected,” Detroit activist Yusef Shaker, who is leading the rally, told the Free Press. “Here was a woman who was seeking help from potential danger and her life was taken … It's a Trayvon Martin case all over again.”
McBride lived in neighboring Detroit, a city that is 83 percent black and where the median income sits just under $28,000 a year. Police in Dearborn Heights, a city where 86 percent of the population is white and the median income sits around $47,000 a year, have not released the shooter's name, race or said whether the weapon used in the McBride shooting was legally purchased, or owned.
But the early questions raised by the McBride case are not unique, gun control advocates say. Nearly 30 states around the country—many of them deeply red and guided by overwhelmingly Republican legislatures—maintain a “Stand your ground” law on the books, says Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“Stand your ground” laws vary but generally give gun owners the legal right to shoot or otherwise injure anyone they believe poses an imminent threat of serious danger. The laws also remove any duty to attempt to retreat from a conflict or danger before one uses deadly force. Lobbyists for the National Rifle Association, the nation’s leading gun-rights organization, and politicians who count themselves among the membership of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—a group that aims to ensure that corporate interests are represented when policy discussions happen—pushed the laws onto the books in 27 states. Most of the policies have been implemented in the last decade.
“And now I think what we are seeing—[in] Michigan and Florida and many other states where we have seen these, at minimum, questionable shootings happen—are the deadly and dangerous results,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, a civil rights organization that worked to expose the role of ALEC and the NRA in spreading “Stand your ground” laws to states across the nation. Some of ALEC’s largest current and former corporate members, such as Wal-Mart, also sell guns.
Florida—which some gun control advocates have described as a virtual laboratory for policies favored by the NRA—became the first state in the nation to enact a “Stand your ground” law. It was also the first state to issue permits allowing almost anyone to carry a concealed weapon in public. In addition, it is home to more than 1 million concealed-carry permit holders, more than any other state in the nation.
The 2012 shooting deaths of Florida teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have drawn national attention to “Stand your ground” laws. Both boys were black and unarmed. A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, who was charged with second-degree murder in connection with the Trayvon shooting, in July. At least one member of the jury said that the panel decided to send Zimmerman home because it was unclear that he had actually broken Florida law when he shot and killed Trayvon. Michael David Dunn faces first-degree-murder charges in connection with the Davis shooting. He insists that he shot at the teen and drove away because he feared for his life.
Despite NRA claims that “Stand your ground” laws help provide much-needed legal cover to law-abiding armed citizens who can contribute to community safety, a whole range of crimes, including homicides, have increased in states with these laws, according to a 2012 study (pdf) by Texas A&M University. And, opponents claim, gun owners often face vastly different penalties when the people they shoot and kill are black.
“‘Stand your ground,’ combined with the discrimination and inequality that is inherent in our justice system and larger society, is sort of like combining gun power and a match,” says Robinson. He declined to comment on the specifics of McBride’s death, since many details remain unclear.
McBride’s funeral is scheduled for Friday at a Detroit church.
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.