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John Roman, Ph.D. Headshot

It's Time to Separate Race and U.S. Firearms Policy

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2014-02-18-dunnTrial.jpg
Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson, left, points at the defendant Michael Dunn, far right, as he speaks to his attorney, Cory Strolla, second from right, during the state's closing arguments in Dunn's trial, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn is charged with fatally shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenience store in 2012. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

It's time to separate race and U.S. firearms policy.

Racial disparities exist throughout the American judicial system. As I've written before, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be stopped and frisked, to have their car searched at a traffic stop, to be arrested and convicted on a drug offense (even though they are less likely to consume illegal drugs -- see Fig. 18 here), and to receive the death penalty.

But it wasn't until the shooting of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman's subsequent trial that another huge racial disparity became evident. African Americans who kill a white victim are 10 times less likely to be deemed justified in killing than whites who kill a black victim. The recent trial of Michael Dunn, who was charged with the murder of Jordan Davis, pushed the issue back in the spotlight.

That disparity is not proof that there is racial animus in criminal justice system case processing. But potential sources of any disparity need to be examined empirically, and the magnitude of this disparity is so large that it warrants particular attention.

It's pure speculation on my part, but I believe that most Americans would be appalled by this apparent injustice and seek remedies if the issue were not so clouded by disputes around the Second Amendment. Those who favor gun rights want to see gun ownership protected, which might make them more open to a narrative where the victims of these crimes deserved their fate. Those who favor gun control might be more open to a narrative where the dead are victims only.

But if we were to separate the Second Amendment issues from the racial disparity question, we would ask a different set of questions. We would ask what differentiates homicides with a black shooter and a white victim from those with a white shooter and a black victim.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requires local law enforcement to submit data on homicides, which are available to the public through the Supplementary Homicide Reports. These data describe each event, whether the victim and offender knew each other, what kind of weapon was used, whether either was law enforcement, and whether the homicide was ruled to be justified.

But what's lacking in these data is the context of the killing. We know that homicides with a black perpetrator and a white victim are more likely to be robberies or burglaries that go sideways and end up in death -- we just don't know how often this happens. Are robberies gone bad 10 times more likely with a black assailant? We don't know. But we need to find out to understand this disparity.

The flip side is that we also do not know much about white-on-black killings. We know that between 2005 and 2009, there were about 80,000 homicides in the United States. Since we don't know who the killer was in about 40 percent of murders, we only know all the facts of the case in a little fewer than 50,000 homicides.

But, out of just under 50,000 homicides, an older white man killed a younger black man with a gun when they were strangers and neither was law enforcement only 23 times. Dunn and Zimmerman thus participated in extremely rare events. Neither was convicted, which was the outcome of nine of the 23 cases with that fact pattern (39 percent). By contrast, when a black American kills a white American, it is ruled to be justified about 1 percent of the time.

This issue deserves much greater examination, and it would be relatively easy to study. What's missing from the FBI data is the context of the crime -- in particular, whether it occurred on a street or in a home. If there is less than a tenfold difference in where these crimes occur, that suggests the disparity is unwarranted.

The problem is that we are having two debates simultaneously. We are debating the meaning of the Second Amendment at the same time that we are grappling with racial disparities in the most serious of crimes.

If we can divorce race and firearms, we can talk about racial disparities in America and figure out if we need to create a more just system.

And then we can talk about the Second Amendment.