Mind the Racial Gap: On the NRA and Standing Your Ground

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Scott Olson

On Monday, May 11, 26-year-old Byrant Heyward called the police for assistance as two men forced their way inside his Hollywood, South Carolina home. After the men fled and police arrived, Heyward exited the house, still holding the firearm he had to defend himself from the intruders. According the The Guardian, two seconds after deputy sheriff Keith Tyner — working from 911 call information that described the suspects as "black males" — barked an order for the African-American Heyward to drop his weapon, Tyner shot him in the neck. Heyward was rushed to the hospital with critical injuries; one of the thieves was found and arrested later that day.

Logically, many people would question why anyone would approach a police officer with a gun in hand, particularly when the news is filled will ill-fated encounters between black men and agents of the state. And under normal circumstances, such queries would be understandable - approaching an officer with a gun in your hand is about as clear of a provocation as can be.

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But here's the thing - South Carolina is a state that supports a policy called The Castle Doctrine. A staunch defender of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, in 2006 South Carolina Governor Marc Sanford signed the Protection of Persons and Property Act, which clearly states:

The stated intent of the legislation is to codify the common law castle doctrine, which recognizes that a person’s home is his castle, and to extend the doctrine to include an occupied vehicle and the person’s place of business. This bill authorizes the lawful use of deadly force under certain circumstances against an intruder or attacker in a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle. […] A person who lawfully uses deadly force is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action, unless the person against whom deadly force was used is a law enforcement officer acting in the performance of his official duties.

So what will happen in the Heyward case?  Was the Tyner right to draw and fire before giving Heyward a chance to drop his weapon?  In a state like South Carolina, shouldn't the cops have experience with and training in how to deal with armed homeowners? Did race play a role in how quickly Tyner, who is white, drew his gun and shot?

I know one place I won't be looking to for answers: The National Rifle Association. Despite being "America's foremost defender of Second Amendment rights" the NRA has a spotty history with advocating for gun rights when issues of race complicate the narrative. On April 27th, the NRA published the following message to its Facebook page, stating that Stand Your Ground laws were the antipode for "rioters wreaking havoc."

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But while the NRA has been quick to capitalize on white fear in the wake of mostly peaceful responses to an epidemic of questionable police shootings, the organization has been reluctant to advocate for the rights of those targeted by law enforcement officers and citizen vigilantes like George Zimmerman, murderer of Trayvon Martin. I doubt there will be a statement from the NRA about the Heyward shooting, not even to urge for greater clarity or training in Castle Doctrine states. I reached out to the NRA for its opinion, but the organization respectfully declined to comment. Instead, we can look forward to the same kind of pandering that happened in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case - silence around the actual issue, but a vigorous defense of the letter of the law - regardless of intent or outcome.

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As for Heyward, according to a statement given by Justin Bamberg, a lawyer for his family, the young man is paralyzed from the waist down. There will be a long recovery ahead, both for Heyward and other citizens like him, trying to stand their ground on shaky political territory.

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