Waldes Thomas and Diamond Darville were driving for the grocery delivery service Instacart near Miami in mid-April when they drove the order up to the wrong address.
Thomas, 19, and Darville, 18, reportedly told authorities they were backing away from the home when the owner emerged with his son, grabbed on to the driver’s window and fired a gun three times at their car. Antonio Caccavale, who didn’t hit anyone, later reportedly claimed to police who investigated the encounter that he shot because he feared for his and his son’s lives as Thomas and Darville’s car ran over his foot and struck a boulder.
Eventually, police concluded everyone – including Caccavale – acted “justifiably based on the circumstances they perceived”, leading to no arrests.
It remains to be seen whether the police’s interpretation of the case is the final word on the matter. A local prosecutor told ABC News in a statement that he would evaluate whether Caccavale should be charged, adding that “the safety of the entire Instacart community is incredibly important” to his office.
Nonetheless, that case, along with a spate of recent shootings across the country which victimized Americans who approached property owners by mistake or for an otherwise innocent reason, did not only vividly illustrate how the US is flooded with guns. It all also showed how people who are made paranoid by the nation’s bitter political climate believe they can use guns with impunity thanks to firearms laws and self-defense statutes that in many states are remarkably permissive, according to experts who spoke with the Guardian this week.
“A lot of people who shouldn’t have guns, who don’t need them, who don’t know how to use them safely … are fearful and trigger happy,” said the president of Global Action on Gun Violence, Jonathan Lowy. “And it’s inevitable that that will lead to tragedies like we’re seeing.”
In a speech on the legislative floor, the Democratic Connecticut US senator Chris Murphy added: “Gun murders are now just the way in which we work out our frustrations. This is a dystopia … that we’ve chosen for ourselves.”
A Harvard University study from 2016 found “there is no good evidence” that using a firearm in purported self-defense reduces the likelihood of injury.
The study’s author, David Hemenway, found some evidence that having a gun for such a purpose may reduce the likelihood of property loss. “But the evidence is equally compelling that having another weapon, such as [pepper spray] or a baseball bat, will also reduce the likelihood of property loss,” Hemenway has said.
Nonetheless, US gun manufacturers have been able to sell their products briskly – some experts estimate there are more than 400m firearms circulating across the country, whose population is about 332 million. Experts say gun manufacturers have done that by collectively convincing buyers that having a firearm is both a constitutional right as well as an effective tool to help them ward off potential danger, playing up the worst-case scenarios that few people are statistically likely to experience but which receive disproportionate attention from media outlets and political partisans.
“The narrative that has been pushed by the gun industry and many politicians [is] that a person needs to be armed at all times everywhere or else they are going to get murdered by the boogeyman,” said Allison Anderman, the Giffords Law Center’s senior counsel and director of local policy.
Most US states now allow residents to carry around a concealed gun without a permit that would typically require some level of training to get, even as a pro-gun, self-defense expert like the author Paxton Quigley says such instruction is essential to be a responsible firearm owner.
“There are very good courses out there that will explain … when you can shoot a gun and if you should shoot it under certain circumstances,” said Quigley, adding that she began carrying a gun on her after her friend was raped. “But a lot of people will just go to a gun store, say ‘that’s a cute gun’, pick it up, see they can handle it and off they go.”
Meanwhile, at least 28 American states, along with the territory of Puerto Rico, permit people to resort to meet an aggressor with deadly force without being required to try to retreat as long as they are lawfully in that place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Information from the conference adds that at least 10 states mention the right for a person to “stand his or her ground” – including Florida, where the Instacart delivery pair were shot at.
To many experts, the inevitable outcome of those realties is a quick-trigger culture exposed internationally by a hellacious, two-week stretch that more or less began with the 13 April shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl. Yarl was shot and injured in Kansas City, Missouri, by a man whose doorbell he rang after going to the wrong address to pick up his siblings.
Kaylin Gillis, 20, was shot dead two days later in upstate New York when the car she was riding in pulled into the driveway of a wrong address. Three days after that, high school cheerleaders Payton Washington and Heather Roth were shot in Elgin, Texas, after practice when Roth inadvertently almost got into a car that strongly resembled her vehicle but was actually the shooter’s.
The same day as the cheerleaders’ shooting in Texas, six-year-old Kinsley White and her parents were allegedly shot by a neighbor in Gastonia, North Carolina, after a basketball that the child was playing with rolled into the attacker’s yard. And in Illinois, on Tuesday, police accused a man of shooting his neighbor, 59-year-old William Martys, to death 13 days earlier while Martys used a leaf blower in his own yard.
The shootings of Yarl, Gillis, Washington, Roth, White, her parents and Martys have all led to arrests, but it remains to be seen whether their accused attackers are convicted. For instance, in 2013 and 2021 in Nevada and Wisconsin, respectively, juries acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin and Kyle Rittenhouse of murdering Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber after claiming that they shot in self-defense.
Rodney Peairs was acquitted in Louisiana in 1993 of committing manslaughter when he shot Yoshihiro Hattori to death after claiming that he feared for his, his wife’s and their child’s lives when the 16-year-old Japanese exchange student mistakenly knocked on his door during the previous Halloween while looking for a party.
State legislatures and the US federal government could at least limit the chances of cases like these unfolding if they enacted measures that “separated people who are not responsible gun owners from their guns”, Mike Lawlor, a criminal justice professor at Connecticut’s University of New Haven, said.
While a member of Connecticut’s legislature in 1999, Lawlor authored the first of the nation’s “red-flag” laws, which enable courts to be petitioned to allow police to confiscate weapons from a person who is judged to be dangerous to themselves or others. The state five years earlier had banned assault-style weapons.
And after an intruder at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook elementary school shot 20 children and six adults dead in 2012, Lawlor said the state enacted even more restrictive gun laws, including prohibiting high-capacity ammunition magazines, requiring permits to purchase firearms and bullets, and outlawing the public carrying of loaded rifles.
The fact that people can go to many other states to circumvent those restrictions stop a place like Connecticut from getting the full benefit of that legislative work, said Anderman, adding that it’d be more effective if Congress passed more substantial federal gun control.
Nonetheless, Lawlor said he firmly believes that legislation is why Connecticut and states that have sought to build similar systems – including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts – consistently have firearm death rates ranking among the lowest in the US, though they are higher than many other places around the globe where guns aren’t so culturally or legally entrenched.
“As long as there are more guns in circulation in this country than there are responsible gun owners, public policy … has got to narrow that gap,” Lawlor said.
On Friday, a day after Lawlor made that remark to the Guardian, Colorado’s governor signed four gun control bills as the state continued its attempt to reckon with its long history of mass gun violence, including the killings of people at an LGBTQ+ nightclub last fall.
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