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Who gets to claim self-defense in shootings? Airman’s death sparks debate over race and gun rights

For the past decade, “Stand Your Ground” laws have been invoked time and time again by gun owners who claim self-defense after carrying out shootings. Critics have denounced them as “shoot first” laws that have created a climate of vigilantism in which gun owners operate with impunity in killing largely Black people.

The concept resurfaced again last week following the killing of Senior Airman Roger Fortson in Florida, but the dynamics were different.

This time, the victim was a young Black servicemember who carried his legally owned handgun to the door of his apartment after hearing banging noises that ended up being a sheriff’s deputy. The officer — and not Fortson — opened fire within seconds. His supervisors say he acted in self-defense.

Fortson's legal team was quick to remind the world of his Second Amendment rights in a state that helped popularize "Stand Your Ground" laws after the killing of Trayvon Martin more than a decade ago.

"They teach us in law school about the sanctity of the home, in the United States of America, and how that is your safe haven. That is your castle," civil rights attorney Ben Crump said at a press conference with Fortson's relatives last week.

“Every one of us, if someone we don’t know comes into our house, are going to defend ourselves,” Brian Barr, Crump’s co-counsel, added. “We have things like Stand Your Ground, the castle doctrine and very strong believers in the Second Amendment in the state of Florida. … He has the right to protect his home.”

Fortson's killing sparked a complicated debate about race, gun laws and self-defense — namely, who is typically afforded deference when it comes to the use of guns in self-defense and who is not.

Lauren Krasnoff, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Miami chapter, said Fortson's race cannot be disentangled from discussion of the case when invoking the castle doctrine and Stand Your Ground.

“I think the point is that the law is being used as both a sword and a shield by law enforcement against Black and brown people,” Krasnoff said.

“I don’t even know that I’d have to say that the airman was standing his ground,” she added. “I think he was just acting lawfully. And if a person is acting lawfully and not committing a forcible felony, then you don’t have a right to stand your ground.”

Florida's Stand Your Ground law protects individuals from prosecution for homicide if they can prove that they perceived an imminent threat of harm or death to themselves or another person, regardless of whether or not they were in their home. The law does not require someone to retreat if they believe that force will be used against them.

The castle doctrine, a common law principle often associated with such laws, allows a person to use force equal to the force being used against them after attempting to retreat in an attack on their home, said David Weinstein, a criminal defense attorney at Jones Walker LLP in Miami.

“It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side,” Weinstein said.

A sheriff's deputy on May 3 shot Fortson after responding to a call about a domestic disturbance at an apartment complex in Fort Walton Beach. Sheriff's officials say the deputy, whose name and race haven't been released, acted in self-defense.

Body cam footage shows the deputy banged on Fortson’s door, paused, then knocked again, yelling that he’s from the sheriff’s office. Fortson eventually answered the door while holding what appeared to be a gun by his side, pointed at the ground. Within a few seconds, the deputy shoots Fortson six times, only then yelling for him to drop his weapon.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.

Fortson's death quickly drew comparisons to those of other Black people killed in recent years by police in their homes, in circumstances involving officers arriving at the wrong address or responding to service calls with wanton uses of deadly force.

MaCharie Dunbar, an Air Force retiree who serves on the board of the Black Veterans Project, feels Fortson’s death surfaces an uncomfortable reality faced by Black Americans who serve their country.

“Many of us are just saddened and angered by the continued unnecessary loss of Black lives at the hands of police,” Dunbar said. “And we want to know how many times do police officers have to get it wrong before they do something collectively to get it right?”

The Fortson case also highlighted the dissonance between a Black person’s constitutional right to bear arms and law enforcement officers’ right to defend themselves against a perceived threat.

“The second amendment afforded Roger the right to own a gun and wield it as protection when he was unsure who was on the other side of his door,” Crump said last week.

For Danielle Campbell, the southeast regional director of the National African American Gun Association, what happened to Fortson is the worst-case scenario for Black and brown law-abiding gun owners.

Campbell said she felt Fortson was essentially “murdered in his own home without so much as being given a command” and his death reiterated that for all Black gun owners, “we’re just at a high risk, period.”

Still, she said striking laws like Stand Your Ground, as Crump has advocated, isn’t the answer because they can support gun owners who rightfully discharged their weapons.

“There have been cases where Black and brown people have successfully been able to utilize Stand Your Ground or the castle doctrine to get off,” she said. “It’s more so that when people of color have interactions with police and they’re armed, we’re automatically seen as a threat and treated as such.”

Some Black Lives Matter activists echoed those sentiments.

Fortson’s death is more about how people “see Black and then shoot” than Stand Your Ground laws, said Chelsea Fuller, a communications leader for the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of racial justice organizations.

“I don’t know how many more research reports have to come out to show there is an innate fear of Blackness in this country,” she said.

Fortson, 23, was originally from Georgia and enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from high school. His remains have since been transferred back to Atlanta where he will be eulogized on Friday.

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AP writer Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed. She and Aaron Morrison are members of AP's Race and Ethnicity team.

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