'A Very Scary Thing For Me': Some Black Gun Owners Worried About 'Stand Your Ground'

Dec 13, 2019

For some, after Donald Trump was elected president, conversations about race became even more intense.

Tensions heightened so much, one 15-year-old African American boy cried and began to question the safety of his Ohio family. Single mother Tiffany Ware reassured her son she would make sure they were safe.

"I was like well, I gotta figure it out," Ware says. "I told him, 'Zion, that's mommy's job; you don't worry about that, I'll protect us.' And I started thinking about how I could protect my family."

Ware posted to Facebook looking for black gun instructors, thinking an African American would be more familiar with her concerns. What she received was a flood of comments from other black women wanting to get trained. So she hired a gun instructor to teach safety and explain Ohio law, as well as how to navigate owning a gun as a black woman.

The Brown Girls With Guns workshop is different from most in the area because it centers around the identity and experiences of black women. Former Cincinnati Police Department officer Terrence Forte is one of the trainers who mixes brutal honesty with a caring tone.

Forte uses the massacre by a white gunman at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, N.C., as an example of why the women should always be alert to their surroundings and encounters.

Twenty-two black women gather on a Sunday afternoon to learn about gun safety in Fairfield, Ohio.
Credit Ambriehl Crutchfield / WVXU

He gives animated explainers – like you're hearing from an uncle or talkative church member – which is how he keeps the women locked in for 10 hours of learning.

"The police are there to help us," Forte says. "But when seconds matter, police are usually minutes away. So, people have to learn to protect themselves and their loved ones, especially women."  

About a quarter of blacks in America report owning a gun, according to a 2017 Pew Research study. When it comes to the Second Amendment, though, some black gun trainers and participants differ with some white gun owners in regards to "Stand Your Ground" laws.

Generally speaking, "Stand Your Ground" allows individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves without first attempting to retreat. Soon it could become the law of the land in Ohio.

If it passes, Ware says she's unsure how they'll teach it in classes.

"It's a very scary thing for me. I think it gives people the license to not give people the benefit of the doubt," Ware says. "That means more death in my community. People that look like me. So that's a scary place for me."

Chris Dorr, director of Ohio Gun Owners, encouraged state Rep. Candice Keller (R-Middletown) to reintroduce the bill to the state legislature.

Similar self-defense legislation was proposed last year but the duty to retreat clause was eliminated, which is a key part of "Stand Your Ground" laws.

Some say after the mass shooting in Dayton – where a gunman killed nine and injured 27 before succumbing to police – now isn't the right time. But Dorr sees it differently.

"All those people in Dayton, they were just sitting there as helpless victims," Dorr says. "They couldn't protect themselves. So, we need to reform Ohio laws so the criminals of this state know that Ohio law no longer favors them. It backs up the law-abiding upstanding citizens. That will be a general deterrent to violent criminals."

WVXU contacted Keller but she declined to be interviewed.

Since the Dayton shooting, Gov. Mike DeWine says he supports "Stand Your Ground" but wants lawmakers to focus on his proposed gun legislation first. His legislation "STRONG Ohio" includes a version of a "red flag" seizure law.

Nonpartisan RAND researchers and others say "Stand Your Ground" laws may increase homicide rates.

A Brown Girls with Guns participant reacts to hearing gun fire at Premier shooting range for the first time.
Credit Ambriehl Crutchfield / WVXU

Harvard Senior Lecturer and Author Caroline Light studies the history of "Stand Your Ground" laws. She says using the law as protection doesn't benefit everyone in court.

"They're more likely to exonerate white people who kill black and brown people," Light says. "They're also less likely to exonerate women who use lethal violence to protect themselves."

Light says the case of Marissa Alexander in Florida is an example of inequity in how the law is applied in court.

Ohio currently has a law on the books that allows people to shoot someone in their home in self-defense without attempting to retreat. It's called the "Castle Doctrine," which the U.S. inherited from early 1600s England. "Stand Your Ground" expands a person's castle boundaries.

Dorr says the problem with the current doctrine is it only applies to your home or car.

"I have seven kids myself. My wife can't sit there and worry to herself that she's made her best duty to retreat with all of our kids," he says. "She needs to be able to immediately start taking action to defend herself or our kids and that's what this law would do."

Light says historically, the doctrine benefited white men with property, which in those days meant their home, wives and enslaved African people.

"So even free African Americans found it very difficult to use the law to justify their self-defense against whites," she says.

Dorr argues that this will help women and people of color.

"As long as they're acting in accord with the law, it treats them better than the criminal that is attacking them," Dorr says.

He says how the law is applied reflects the judicial system, not the language itself.

Ware says over 500 black women have gotten their concealed carry weapon licenses in her firearm safety training class.

"Make sure they know the laws, make sure that they understand some things are black and somethings are white, but this 'Stand Your Ground' is going to make a whole bunch of gray area for a lot of things to happen," she says.

WVXU reached out to the Cincinnati Police Department, Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy, Ohio Associations of Chiefs of Police, Hamilton County Sheriff's office to understand how this will change officer training with civilians if the law is implemented. They declined to be interviewed.

"If we got police officers, sheriff deputies, state troopers, federal agents over reacting, what do we expect the average citizen to do?" says Forte. "When they perceive a problem that may only be in their mind."

He says assessing the threat and situation could prevent escalating a situation.

If it passes, Ohio would become the 37th state with the law, joining Kentucky and Indiana. The Ohio Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee hasn't started hearings on the "Stand Your Ground" bill yet.