On Saturday night, the jury in the case of Michael Dunn rendered a strange verdict, convicting Dunn of attempting to murder the three teens who survived the hail of fire he sent at their car, but deadlocking on the charge of murdering the one he succeeded in killing. We may never know what went on in the jury room, but if nothing else, Dunn will not be driving into any more parking lots and getting into any more arguments that end in death, at least not for some time.
This case is, of course about race, which we'll get to in a moment. But it's also about—to use a word that crops up repeatedly in Michael Dunn's written comments—a culture. It's a culture where manhood must continually be proven, where every disagreement is a test of strength, and where in the end, your fellow human beings are only waiting to kill you, so you'd better draw first.
This was the culture of violence that Michael Dunn carried with him to the convenience store, the one that ended the life of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. It was Dunn's manic hyper-vigilance, his fear, and the .45 he carried with him that brought death to the parking lot.
Dunn's defense was built on his belief that he saw something that looked like the barrel of a shotgun (or maybe a pipe) emerge from the window of the car holding the teenagers with whom he was arguing about their music, though no shots came from their car and the police never found any gun. Unlike many people, I have no trouble believing that, for an instant at least, Dunn really did think he saw a gun. I also suspect that he realized afterward that there was no gun, which would explain why he never mentioned it to his fiancée.
What we do know is that when he encountered those black teens, Michael Dunn was sure he was facing down a group of dangerous criminals who might well try to kill him at any moment. We don't have to wonder whether Dunn is a racist, because his own words make it pretty clear. The letters he wrote to family and friends while awaiting trial are full of statements describing black people as violent criminals who hate whites. "I'm not really prejudiced against race, but I have no use for certain cultures," he wrote. "This gangster rap, ghetto-talking thug 'culture' that certain segments of society flock to is intolerable." He wrote to a family member, "I just got off the phone with you and we were talking about how racist the blacks are up here. The more time I am exposed to these people the more prejudiced against them I become. I suppose the white folks who live here are pretty much anti-black, at least the ones who have been exposed to them." And from another letter: "Remember when your mom was robbed? At gunpoint? Black thug."
So when Dunn arrived at the store and heard that loud rap music, what it meant to him was clear: These are dangerous thugs. After all, they're young and black, and they've got that awful rap music playing, right? And once he began to argue with them, you can bet that he was on high alert, ready to draw his weapon. Think about the last time you got into an argument. Your heart rate accelerated, the adrenaline started pumping, you entered into a state of heightened agitation and awareness. This physiological reaction was bred into us by millions of years of evolution, the fight-or-flight response to danger that ensured the survival of our ancestors.
The 7-11 is not the savanna, but Michael Dunn plainly believed he was a water buffalo surrounded by hyenas. So this time, he would be the predator. He grabbed his gun, exited his car, got down on one knee, and began to fire. And then he kept on firing, ten shots in all, even as the car drove away to escape him.
Just like the case of Curtis Reeves, the Florida man who shot and killed a man who irritated him by texting in a movie theater during the previews, the argument began over the most mundane thing, but ended in death. Michael Dunn couldn't abide that loud rap music. Curtis Reeves got popcorn thrown at him, and threw back a bullet.
In a reasonable world—or in most countries other than ours—arguments like those would end with someone muttering "Jerk!" under his breath, then getting back to what he meant to be doing beforehand. An hour later, he'd think of the perfect retort that would have put that guy in his place. But in the world gun advocates have made, the result isn't frustration or resentment, but death.
In his letters, Michael Dunn refers to black men, again and again, as "thugs." But there was only one thug in that convenience store parking lot, one person who was ready to unleash violence at a moment's notice, one man whose regard for human life had departed him somewhere along the course of his days. That thug wasn't the 17-yead-old black kid. It was the 47-year-old white guy holding the gun.