Police tell Detroiters to buy guns in city riven by race issues and crime
Rose Hackman, theguardian.com- Detroit police chief James Craig – nicknamed “Hollywood” for his years spent in the LAPD and his seeming love of being in front of the camera – has repeatedly called on “good” and “law-abiding” Detroiters to arm themselves against criminals in the city. His words have not fallen on deaf ears. Patricia Champion, a 63-year-old lifelong Detroiter, a grandmother and retired educator, decided to get her concealed pistol license - a CPL - two years ago after her son said he was increasingly worried for her safety. Champion, a resident of northwest Detroit, mostly keeps her gun, a 9mm Glock 19 that set her back $600, in her house.
“That’s why I got it: because I’m going to be in the house. Now, if somebody chooses to come in and I didn’t invite you, between the Glock and the dog, you’re gone. If one doesn’t get you, the other one will.”
“The police are not going to protect you when something is being perpetrated on you. They may turn up after the fact and run after that person, but you have to protect yourself,” Champion says.
Champion’s fears of facing a threat in her home are not ill-founded. Besides having the worst homicide rate among large American cities, Detroit experienced 12,935 burglaries last year. With around 250,000 households, that means Detroiters have roughly a 1 in 20 chance of being burgled. To residents who have been victims of crime, being allowed to carry a weapon, whether openly or concealed, is not just reassuring, it’s part of the pragmatic reality of living in the Motor City. Wayne County, which encapsulates Detroit and its metro area, counted 83,950 active concealed-pistol permits as of 1 August 2014 – meaning one permit for every 21 households.
The city, strapped for cash, has only 2,300 police officers – unchanged from a year ago, before the bankruptcy, but still not enough. Many Detroiters feel they have to rely on themselves first for their own security and survival.
For Rick Ector, a Detroit-based NRA firearms instructor and former Chrysler systems analyst, it is quite simple: “You are your own first line of defense.”
But that’s not without conflict. This week, police chased and shot two men after allegedly seeing them illegally purchasing a gun. Coincident with the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, it added another layer of tension to a city already high-strung about guns and crime.
An additional cost of living in Detroit: firearms
In a city where houses sometimes sell for $500, buying and maintaining a gun is a significant expense. For those who choose to earn concealed pistol licenses, like Champion, the application fee is $105 and courses might set you back anywhere between $100 and $250. Purchased guns cost interviewees of this story between $450 and $700, with accessories; including ammunition, add another possible $200-$300.
“A good investment,”the retired grandmother says.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on around here. We watch the news, and every day it’s something,” says 37-year-old Tanisha Moner, a former hospital administrator.
When Moner was 17, she was raped and robbed at gunpoint at a pay phone in Detroit. Four years later, 21-year-old Moner was attending Wayne State University in the city and working as a manager at a Burger King on the side. One morning, while she was counting money in her Burger King office, she was once again robbed at gunpoint and left in the fast-food restaurant’s freezer. After that, Moner says she became petrified of guns and loud noises.
“Finally, two years ago I said, I’m either going to let my fear overcome me, or I am going to beat my fear. So I got my [concealed pistol license] in the event that something else should ever happen.”
Moner carries her $650 fourth-generation Glock 19 most places she goes.
The ‘shoot-first’ law
And if, as in the case of Patricia Champion, Detroit residents plan on resisting criminals, the law is theoretically on their side.
Michigan passed a self-defense act in 2006, referred to nationally as a “stand-your-ground-law”. The law removes an individual’s duty, when acting in self-defense, to retreat.
Instead, it allows individuals who have an “honest and reasonable belief” that they are in imminent fear for their life, serious bodily harm or sexual assault to use deadly force.
Skeptics have called this a “shoot-first” law.
As in the case of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, Michigan’s no-duty-to-retreat law takes the age-old “castle doctrine”, originally conceived to be applicable to people in their own homes, to the next level: people can shoot and “stand their ground” anywhere they have the “legal right to be” – from a car parking lot, to a supermarket, to a home.
More to the point perhaps, in Detroit where citizens are constantly on-guard, the self-defense act also allows for the use of deadly force when an individual “reasonably and honestly” believes the “unlawful use of force” is about to be used on them or another individual.
Last November, Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old, unarmed black teenager from Detroit, was wordlessly shot dead by white Theodore Wafer on the porch of his home in the nearby suburb of Dearborn Heights, as she was apparently seeking help after being in a car accident in the early hours of the morning.
And although Wafer was recently found guilty of second-degree murder, intrinsic to his defense and the justification of his acts was the notion that being close to Detroit warranted being armed and fearful.
He was, like many Detroit residents, ready to expect the worst when someone came banging at his door. In her concluding remarks to the jury, Wafer’s defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter quoted police chief Craig encouraging Detroiters to bear arms.
While anyone over 18 who legally purchases a gun can openly carry it in Michigan – meaning the gun should be visible at all times – the process is lengthier to get a permit for conceal-and-carry, or keeping a gun without it being visible. You must get your concealed pistol license, or CPL, which involves an eight-hour mandatory training class and an application with the Wayne County Clerk.
But motivations to own and learn how to use guns are not just tied to a high crime rate in Detroit, which made international headlines last year for being the largest American city to ever file for bankruptcy.
Legally armed in Detroit: guns and racial bias
At annual NRA national meetings, Detroiter Rick Ector finds himself to be an exception: among thousands of participants, he is one of the only black people in the room.
In 2006, Ector, a self-described family man who was ambivalent about guns and saw no need to own one, was carjacked at gunpoint in his driveway in the North Rosedale Park area of Detroit. Today, his belief in the importance of carrying has reached such a degree he teaches classes, leads a volunteer effort to empower women to use guns and writes a blog called LAID, or Legally Armed In Detroit.
Indeed, if it is an anomaly for a police chief to go on record and speak in favor of his citizens arming themselves against criminals, what might strike some as more noteworthy within the current national climate of racially tense shootings is that Detroit is 82% black. The police-sanctioned arms race stacking so-called “good” Detroiters against presumably bad ones may be fulfilling a stigma of armed black people, rather than trying to dismantle it.
The potential legal consequences of the city’s racial makeup should not be underestimated, says Mark Fancher, a racial justice staff attorney at Michigan’s ACLU.
While Craig likes to cite an armed populace as being a deterrent to crime, Fancher says it is worth considering how stand-your-ground laws statistically tend to help protect white shooters over black ones.
Implicit in Craig’s statements and residents’ understanding of those statements is that should good Detroiters shoot, they would be in the right, protected by the law.
But in a 2013 study analyzing FBI data and stand-your-ground laws across the United States, John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, found that stand-your-ground laws in practice disproportionately protected white shooters, and held black shooters – regardless of race of the person they’ve shot – more likely to be found guilty.
The starkest of differences was found between cross-racial shootings. A white shooter of a black victim is 10 times more likely to have his or her homicide ruled justified compared to the homicide of a black shooter on a white victim.
These differences are so strong that it is almost impossible to conclude racial bias does not play a role, says Roman the author of the study, who is also executive director at the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute.
Despite numerous reports in the local media of residents shooting home invaders and carjackers since the beginning of the year, only eight homicides have so far been ruled justified, says sergeant Michael Woody, a Detroit Police Department spokesperson.
One of those reported shootings involved Divana Webb’s son, 15-year-old Damontae Moorer, who was shot four times this April while allegedly breaking into a man’s house with a 19-year-old woman.
Moorer, whose mother says he was unarmed at the time and was brought up away from guns, died at the scene. The prosecutor’s office has not yet ruled whether the homicide was justified.
“The idea of putting deadly force into the hands of untrained citizens as a strategy to reduce violence strikes me as something that can only be counter-productive,” says Roman, referring to this unique kind of policing as an “arm yourself and fire-at-will model”.
From an economic development perspective, the ramifications of this kind of policy are mixed, once more with potential differences along racial lines.
Police proactively patrol the whiter areas of Detroit – downtown, midtown, Corktown and Eastern Market – with their presence felt to a much lesser degree in other neighborhoods of the city predominately lived in by African Americans.
Moreover, downtown peacekeeping is supplemented by private security financed by downtown’s businesses – notably Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, both owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert. Midtown peacekeeping is heavily supplemented by Wayne State University Police, whose response time is famously just 90 seconds. Residents of Midtown do not feel the same urgency to arm themselves as residents in other, less central parts of the city.
Regarding economic consequences for the city, Roman’s words are unforgiving.
“I think it’s a disaster. How do you grow a city when you say to people who are thinking about moving there: ‘When you move here, bring a weapon.’ Who’s going to want to move there?”
What residents are finding, in Detroit, is that the cost of owning a gun is far more than the money it takes to buy one.