Before his son died, Ron Davis had had just one distant brush with Florida’s gun laws.
Right around the time Davis retired from Delta Airlines in 2006, an airport security guard with a moonlighting gig at a local bank suggested that he apply for one of the state's new concealed-carry permits and take on some part-time security work. The permits legally allow holders to carry a loaded weapon outside their home, in a concealed fashion.
What’s more, just a year earlier Florida had passed the country’s first Stand Your Ground Law, which protects legal gun owners who don’t retreat if faced with a potentially dangerous confrontation. Instead, Stand Your Ground gives gun owners both criminal and civil legal protection if they use their weapons based on “reasonable suspicion” of fearing for their lives or those of others.
"‘Oh yeah, everybody is getting one [a permit]. Plus, now, if you shoot someone, you are covered. It’s OK’,” Davis recalls the security guard telling him. “While we were having this conversation, I remember thinking this guy was one of the looniest guys I had ever met. So the idea that he had [a concealed-carry permit] did leave me concerned. But you know, you just go on with your life.”
In November, everything changed. Davis's 17-year-old son Jordan was shot and killed in a Jacksonville gas station parking lot by a Florida man, Michael David Dunn.
Dunn, 46, has indicated that Stand Your Ground may be part of his defense. In the days just after Jordan’s death, a lawyer then representing Dunn claimed that Dunn was “devastated" that anyone was harmed.
Dunn claims he demanded that Jordan and his friends, who were riding inside an SUV, turn down the car's music. They argued and Dunn fired his weapon eight or nine times. He said he had been frightened by the barrel of a shotgun he saw emerging from the rear window of the SUV, and the sense that he was facing down a group of dangerous thugs.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has determined that no one inside the SUV was armed at the time of the shooting.
Now, Ron Davis and his ex-wife, Jordan’s mother, Lucia Kay McBath, have launched a legal effort to force Dunn to atone for his actions and statements -- what they see as a wrongful death by murder, defamation and inflicting emotional distress. They hope to give gun owners with concealed-carry permits a new reason to reconsider using their guns in Florida: the possible loss of their assets.
Through what they expect will be a series of court hearings and likely appeals, Davis and McBath plan to challenge the blanket criminal and civil immunity that Florida's Stand Your Ground law provides. They are also suing Dunn for slander because of the statements made by his former lawyer. "The victims were made out to be thug-like aggressors, tarnishing their standing in the community," according to the suit.
“This is not about money, it will never be about money,” said John Phillips, an attorney representing Jordan's parents and those of two other teens sitting in the SUV at the time of his death. “This is about trying to set the record straight, salvage reputations and make sure that Michael Dunn, who is apparently a man of some means, can’t just spend it all down.”
Dunn owns a waterfront condominium, a small plane and is at least the partial owner of a software company, according to public records.
Unlike the parents of Trayvon Martin, another Florida teen shot and killed by a man who is expected to cite the state's Stand Your Ground Law in his defense, Jordan's parents never faced a battle to see the man who admitted to shooting their son charged with a crime. The state of Florida has charged Dunn with first-degree murder for Jordan's death and with the attempted murder of his friends.
But to prove that Dunn is guilty of first-degree murder in the state of Florida, the prosecutor must show that Dunn fired his gun intending to harm or kill someone. Any testimony that might leave the jury with the impression that Dunn only intended to scare the teenagers, or that he did not intend to kill Jordan, could lead to an acquittal or a conviction on a crime that carries a lighter sentence.
In civil court, the standard of proof is different and lawyers say easier to meet: negligence. In Florida, negligence is defined as an act that exposes others to harm or the threat of harm. A person found guilty of wrongful death in civil court due to negligence can be forced to compensate victims for pain, suffering, medical and other costs, whether or not he is convicted in criminal court.
Dunn, who could not be reached for comment because he remains in jail awaiting trial, seems to know this, Phillips said. When Phillips's process server approached Dunn in his solitary confinement cell earlier this month to serve him a notice of the civil suit, Dunn curled into the fetal position and refused to take the papers. Jail officials forced Dunn to accept the documents the next day.
While the civil and criminal cases against Dunn are pending, one Florida legislator has begun the process of trying to alter what she considers the most dangerous aspects of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Rep. Cynthia Stafford (D-Miami) has introduced a bill that would alter the law to require an “overt act” to support the use of deadly force, rather than “reasonable suspicion.”
“We can see that what we are really talking about when people make these decisions is someone’s life,” said Stafford. “When something is literally a matter of life and death I think the standard needs to be just a little bit higher, a little bit tighter than suspicion and fear.”
Stafford’s bill has not yet been set for discussion or a vote in the two committees it must clear in order to reach the full legislature. One of those committees is chaired by the man who drafted Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law in 2005.
“One way or another I am convinced -- no, I am compelled to make sure that something changes here," said Ron Davis. "My life, Jordan’s mother’s life, his brother’s life have been forever changed.”
The city of Jacksonville has declared Saturday, Feb. 16 Jordan Davis Day. Had he never crossed paths with Dunn, it would have been Jordan's 18th birthday.