I’ll start by telling you something very unpopular. Sheriff Newell Normand, who delayed the arrest of NFL running back Joe McKnight’s shooter by five unexplained days, was probably operating within the law — a messy, prejudiced, dangerous law, but the law nonetheless. No matter that treating a white shooter with kid gloves stood in marked contrast to the way a black man was treated after he shot and killed a driver in a similar road rage incident in 2013.* We’ll come back to that.
What needs to be remembered is that cops responding to a call have a huge amount of discretion to decide whether a crime has occurred. Being the first point of contact with the law is their job.
Okay, so far, so good.
Here’s where things get weirder: Despite the fact that officers who responded to the McKnight shooting on Dec. 1 did, in fact, find a body on the ground, and despite the fact that they had a shooter right there who freely admitted to the act, and despite the fact that this shooting was obviously the reason Joe McKnight died at that Jefferson Parish intersection, it was still possible that no “crime” had occurred.
Because, you see, our legislators have allowed the gun lobby to literally write the laws of Louisiana. Several of these statutes are problematic here, including the Castle Law (“your home is your castle”) that allows you to defend your property, even your broken-down Toyota, with lethal force.
But let’s focus on the Stand Your Ground law. I won’t belabor the statute for you, but I will try to explain the rationale that leads to the release of many shooters like Ronald Gasser, the serially enraged driver — his prior road-rage incidents date back at least to 2006 — who killed a stranger named Joe McKnight.
Stand Your Ground was tacked on to Louisiana’s Justifiable Homicide rules in 2006, upending centuries of common-sense definitions of self-defense. Under the revamped rules, juries could no longer consider whether you could have retreated rather than use deadly force.* You need only “perceive” a threat in order to justify meeting force with force — even if you could easily escape that threat.
Now, y’all know the problem with perception. My nephew is mortally terrified of clowns. Ridiculous, I know, but my grown-person logic does not make his fear any less real to him. So if Ronald Gasser is honestly scared of black men, the fact that his fear is based on racial bias does not make it any less real to him. Stand Your Ground has codified prejudice.
And guess who we can thank for this ugly and absurd state of affairs? When Stand Your Ground was passed into law and signed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the bill’s author Eric LaFleur, now a state senator, freely admitted that NRA lobbyists had actually drafted language in the bill.
States with Stand Your Ground laws have seen significant jumps in their gun homicide rates. A recent report out of Florida shows an astounding 32 percent increase in firearm-related homicides since the law was put into effect. Thirty-two percent. Can we stop pretending this law was going to make us safer?
And so, Gasser gets set back on the streets and highways of Louisiana as the mills of justice grind slowly, while Roger Batiste, the man who also invoked a Stand Your Ground defense when he shot and killed another driver in Jefferson Parish in 2013, was immediately booked and charged. Batiste is serving a five-year prison sentence following a plea deal. But this discrepancy should not surprise us either.
Should we be surprised that a white man’s perceived fear of a black man seemed reasonable to responding officers? And should we be surprised that officers were less willing to wrap their heads around the perceived fear of a black man in 2013? If black men are the scary ones, then why should they be afraid? It’s this exact logic that is not only encouraged, but required under the disastrous Stand Your Ground law.
There’s nothing particularly subtle or complicated going on here: The Louisiana Legislature, along with Gov. Blanco, basically sold to the gun lobby the right of Louisianans to a rational and fair legal system. Politicians got their campaign donations and endorsements and all we got was a Lady Justice who is blindfolded only when the blood in the streets is black.
Victoria Coy is executive director of the Louisiana Violence Reduction Coalition.
The Lens opinion section is a forum dedicated to the expression and debate of responsible views from across the community. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens. To discuss a column idea you’d like to contribute, contact Karen Gadbois: email@example.com
Clarification: This column originally stated that since the law was changed, “you no longer have the duty to retreat from a threat before using lethal force.” This was changed after publication to clarify that the “duty to retreat” was not part of Louisiana law before 2006, but juries could consider it when rendering a verdict in a criminal case. (Jan. 9, 2017)
Correction: This column originally stated that Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand handled the investigation into the McKnight shooting differently than he handled another one involving a black man who shot a driver. However, that case was handled by Kenner police, not the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. The error has been corrected. (Jan. 9, 2017)