A Most American Way to Die

If you're an unarmed black teen in Florida, someone can gun you down – and they might get away with it

an american way to die
Illustration by John Ritter
By |

This was some battle going on in that car, a cage match of warring colognes. Tevin Thompson, tall and soft-cheeked, had basted himself in Curve, swiped from the back of his parents' dresser, where the old man kept his more expensive smell-goods. Leland Brunson, small and snarky, the runt of the four-kid crew, was bumping Chanel and a couple of clashing lotions and smelled like mixed inserts from three men's mags. Jordan Davis, the prince – he of the red-hot girlfriend and every fly snapback sold online – was drenched in Armani and looking right. And Tommie Stornes, at the wheel of his Durango – well, who ever knew what Tommie was wearing? He kept the whole scent counter at Macy's in his car. True, he'd taken hours to get coifed and dressed to go girl-hunting at the mall, but as these boys liked to say, you can't rush greatness.

They hit the Town Center mall around 5 p.m. and found it hip-to-hip with Christmas shoppers. On this, the first evening after Thanksgiving, all of Jacksonville was out and about, walking of the torpor of candied yams at the fanciest galleria in northern Florida. The boys did their best impression of premium shoppers, four well-raised black teens from middle-class homes trying hard to stand out by blending in. They talked to – but whiffed with – a few of the upscale "honeys," browsed the stores for high-priced sneakers that they mostly owned already (Tevin bought a new pair every payday; Jordan, who'd just landed his first after-school job, was breaking his father's wallet with his shoe game) and began to make their way toward the exits. Then Jordan spotted Aliyah, his beautiful, on-off girlfriend, who was finishing up her shift at Urban Outfitters. They'd been on the rocks for weeks over the silliest teenage nonsense – he'd bought roses on her birthday but wouldn't bring them to school, convinced his friends would clown him till graduation. Now, though, she smiled at him, and Jordan's heart went clattering around his rib cage. "They needed to get back together so he'd stop talking about her," says Tevin. "Every . . . …single . . . …day, it was Aliyah this, Aliyah that. We're all like, 'Damn it, dude: Just call her already.'"

Gun Control: 45 Percent of the Senate Foils 90 Percent of America

And so now it was 7:00, and they were driving back to Jordan's to play Xbox on his father's big TV. A couple of miles away, they stopped at a Gate gas station so Tommie could run in for a pack of Newports. They were blasting Chief Keef through the half-down windows and busting on Jordan about Aliyah when a black Jetta pulled into the spot beside them. A woman got out and ducked into the store; the driver, a crew-cut moose of a white man named Michael David Dunn, cracked his window and told them to turn the noise down. "I hate that thug music," he had griped to his girlfriend before he sent her in to buy some wine and chips; Rhonda Rouer would tell detectives the next day that that was a "common" complaint of Dunn's. They had just come from the wedding of Dunn's only son and had left the reception early to get back to the hotel so he could walk their newly bought puppy.

The Gun Industry's Nine Most Outrageous Marketing Ploys

Tevin, in the front passenger seat, dialed the music down, but Jordan, sitting behind him, wouldn't have it. Unbelting himself, he reached across the console to crank the volume up. He and Dunn went at it, peppering f-bombs at each other. "You're not gonna talk to me like that!" yelled Dunn, reaching across the dash to his glove compartment. Tommie had come back and was strapping himself in when he saw a gun through the window of Dunn's car. "Duck!" he yelled and grabbed for the shifter when the first three shots hit his car. Several more rounds whacked the car as Tommie floored it backward and peeled out. He broke left, past the gas pumps, while bullets winged by. Dunn, half out of his Jetta and firing two-fisted, kept shooting at the fleeing Durango; one bullet pierced the liftgate and another clipped the visor, missing Tommie's skull by an inch.

He drove a hundred yards into the adjacent shopping plaza, stopped in front of a sandwich shop and jumped out to check on his friends. Tevin was somehow fine - his door had stopped the slugs. Leland, sitting behind Tommie, was OK too, though his hands and sleeves were wet with fresh blood. Jordan, however, was slumped in his lap. The first three shots had gone through his door; two of them lodged in his chest and groin. His eyes rolling back, he gasped for air as the three friends shrieked for help. "Jordan was making that rattle people make when they're dying," says Tevin. "That's when Leland started to cry. I hugged him and tried to tell him it'd be OK."

Tevin dialed 911, but someone had beaten him to it: The strip mall was packed with stunned bystanders. Two of them jotted down the Jetta's plate number as Dunn tore of, speeding up Southside Boulevard. Soon, the Gate gas station bristled with sirens: cops securing the crime scene and taking statements, collecting a dozen firsthand accounts; medics working feverishly to keep Jordan breathing as they loaded him into the ambulance; and detectives comforting his stricken friends, particularly Leland, who couldn't stop sobbing. Jordan was his best friend; they all but lived at each other's houses. "Jordan was my third son - I loved that boy," says Tanya Booth-Brunson, Leland's mother. "He had this shine on him that lit up the room. He was a star, and everyone knew it."

Shortly before noon the following day, deputies knocked on a door in Satellite Beach, three hours south down 95. Dunn, a computer programmer and gun enthusiast who'd fired his first rifle at three, stepped out onto the stoop of his beachfront condo. Fully six four and 280 pounds, he greeted the cops with the convivial air of a long-lost beer-league pal. In the interview box at the downtown precinct, he sloughed off the reading of his Miranda rights. According to Jordan's father, Dunn said he didn't need a lawyer, telling the detectives: They defied my orders. What was I supposed to do if they wouldn't listen? Appalled, the cops booked him on the spot, and he was eventually charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.

But several days after the shooting, Dunn told the world through his hastily hired lawyer, Robin Lemonidis, that he fired 10 shots in a crowded shopping plaza because he felt threatened by the boys. They were gang members calling their gang buddies, said Lemonidis; Dunn had to act fast, before they did. Also, they were men piling out of the car, not high school boys cringing in terror. And third, there was this, thrown in for good measure: Dunn was sure he saw a shotgun aimed at him through the right rear window of the boys' car. (Damningly, though, he didn't tell his girlfriend about a gun before his arrest.) And with that, nine months after the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Gunshine State of Florida had spawned a second grotesque fraud: the killing of a defenseless black kid by an armed, angry white man invoking the worst law in America – the Stand Your Ground statute of self-defense.

Fifty years ago, the South refought the Civil War, burning churches, beating marchers and murdering Freedom Riders under the banner of segregation and states' rights. Fomented by George Wallace and the thuggery of Bull Connor, countless angry white men in hoods and robes took to the streets of Selma and Birmingham to wage combat against the "tyrants" of the civil-rights movement. They were crushed as badly as their forebears at Appomattox – Lyndon Johnson quashed their puny riots, then put across his Great Society package in the greatest progressive landslide in American history – and went home to lick their wounds and plot revenge. The "silent majority," as they called themselves, switched parties, elected Nixon and built grassroots coalitions to leverage what slim power they still had. A quarter of a century later, they would rise again, marshaling an army behind God-guns-and-gay-hate to take the Republican Party by brute force.

One of the pillars of that movement, the National Rifle Association and its estimated 4 million dues-paying members, launched an initiative to rearm themselves through a series of stealth attacks on the nation's gun laws. Using Florida as a test lab, they mobilized their shock troops to bombard state legislators, demanding that they change the state's right-to-carry statute from "may-issue" basis to "shall-issue." "May-issue" meant that Florida, which had the same sensible limits as the vast majority of states around the country, only granted permits to bear arms in public to people who could prove, to the satisfaction of authorities, that they possessed "good moral character." As in other states, cops had discretion, and the number of yearly permits granted was tiny.

The NRA vs. America

But so loud and bullying was the pressure from pro-gun zealots that, by 1987, Florida's legislators buckled, overhauling the law. It became a shall-issue state, meaning that authorities must grant permits to carry concealed, loaded weapons to anyone who doesn't fall into a narrow category of exceptions, including convicted felons or those with prior commitment to mental institutions. This meant, for instance, that men arrested for stalking their girlfriends were free to show up on their doorsteps with enough stopping power to drop an ox. Women pulled over for a DUI? Approved. Psychotic college students who were symptomatic but not committed? Approved. For the crazed and criminal-minded, it was spring break meets jailbreak. Y'all come down and see us – we're one-stop shopping!

Several things happened next in quick succession. State residents applied for permits in droves (at last count, Florida was granting 15,000 a month) and flooded Walmart for stylish Sig Sauers to slip into their purses or blazers. Gunmakers, bereft about the rifle business, which had tanked with the decline of deer hunting, saw a huge upside in pistol sales and avidly began funding NRA efforts to rewrite the carry laws in other states. Working under the noses of the mainstream media, which, to their disgrace, did little reporting on this putsch, gun lobbyists fanned out across the nation racking up triumph after triumph. Today, you can carry a loaded semiauto in 37 states in America.

But gutted gun laws are only useful to shooters if they know they won't be charged for opening fire. In Florida, where gun activists were toasting 18 years of wins and would soon add others to their column (the right to bring loaded weapons to work, so long as you kept them in your car; the right to bar doctors from asking their patients if they had loaded guns around the house; the right to buy rifles used by Army snipers to kill people at a distance of a mile), the state's prolific gun lobbyist, Marion Hammer, rammed home legislation in 2005 that limited the ability of law enforcement to prosecute shooters who had evidence of provocation, no matter how slight. Hammer, an ex-president of the NRA and a musket-toting grandma who proudly enrolled her grandkids in the NRA at birth, is a single-issue force field whose mission in life has been the expansion of Second Amendment rights. (Quoth author and gun lobbyist Richard Feldman: "There is no single individual responsible for enacting more pro-gun legislation in the states than Marion Hammer.") Her Stand Your Ground bill, which passed with ease despite being built on a convenient tale – Hammer claimed to have been stalked in a parking garage by six men, one of whom wielded a "long-necked beer bottle" before she pulled out her .38 and aimed – gave anyone who deemed himself under attack the right to fire first and explain later. Yes, you'd have to tell your side to the authorities, but it'd be on prosecutors to prove you weren't acting in self-defense, and once covered you couldn't be charged for your part in the shooting or be sued for damages by the victim's family.

It was another wild debasement of existing law, this one dating back to a distinctly American iteration of English common law called "castle doctrine," where the original duty to retreat was rejected and you had the right to use deadly force if your castle, i.e., dwelling, was invaded, though there were subtle differences state by state. But the gun lobby got cracking in the 1960s and expanded the law to include your lawn and backyard, then, a couple of decades later, your car, as well. Now, with Stand Your Ground, your castle was your person and your right to use deadly force traveled with you. With the state's masses strapped up and given carte blanche to kill, Florida's gun-grab blew up in its face. Instantly, drug dealers were using the new law to stage shootouts in the streets. Feuding neighbors settled scores, and thugs with multiple busts on their criminal records, many for brandishing guns, were exempt from prosecution after blowing away the boyfriend of the ex they'd been harassing. Per a stellar series in the Tampa Bay Times, which did a months-long search of court records and interviews to profile 222 shooters claiming Stand Your Ground, the law has done nothing to protect the innocent. Instead, it's been a godsend for violent ex-cons who're adept at gaming the system. Said Kendall Coffey, a former federal prosecutor in South Florida, "People who've been through the legal system are going to be more seasoned to using the law. And it doesn't take a master of fiction to turn a homicide into Stand Your Ground."

In the eight years since the passage of Stand Your Ground, self-defense killings have more than tripled in Florida, and prosecutors sometimes have little choice but to accept the shooter's story: The only other witness is in the morgue. And like most of the gun amendments incubated in Florida, this one quickly went viral. It's now the law of the land in more than 20 states. Has it reduced violent crime, the stated goal of the law? Certainly not, according to study after study; homicides are up in SYG states, though they're down almost everywhere else. More than 500 people are dead from such shootings. And the prime victims of these crimes, according to one 2012 Georgia State University study? White males, or precisely the sort of men whom SYG was built to protect. But that's what guns do: They backfire and kill.

Though his mother will never admit it, the facts are the facts: Jordan Davis died a mama's boy. He loved Lucia McBath like only a single child can – as her proud, fiercely possessive young man. Every boy in the neighborhood loved her too. They came over all the time to the house where Jordan was raised on a quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Atlanta, five or six kids following him home from class to eat McBath out of hearth and home. These were church kids who'd met at Christian school and climbed the rungs together as a pack. Choir, scouts, religious retreats: They were good sons surrounded by other good sons, that mannerly quotient of the black middle class that never gets attention in the press.

"We taught him to understand that his actions ripple outward, that they affect other people, so be accountable," says McBath, still lovely at 52, the shadows in her eyes notwithstanding. As a flight attendant and a senior recruiter for Delta Airlines – where she's been for three decades and where she met Ron Davis, her husband-to-be and future father of her only child, aboard a flight she was working as an attendant – McBath raised Jordan largely alone from the time he was three years old. Ron, who was also a Delta lifer (he retired as a purser in 2006, after 32 years of service), was a doting single dad who took Jordan every other weekend so McBath could double-shift and stay home weekdays. It was a workable arrangement till Ron remarried and moved 350 miles south to Jacksonville in 2002, though Jordan got used to catching the one-hour flight to see his dad on alternate weekends. Jordan was "an easy kid," says Ron, gym-built and busy in retirement; he looks a decade younger than his 60 years. "Even here, knowing no one, he made tons of friends fast. I got used to cooking waffles for three or four kids, with all the sleepovers he had."

That Jordan was easy – or for that matter, anything – bordered on the near-miraculous. McBath was riddled with uterine fibroids that made bringing a fetus to term almost impossible. She'd miscarried twice and delivered a stillborn son by the age of 34; then she got pregnant with Jordan. Her surgeon put her on ironclad bed rest for eight months till her due date, staged a radical procedure to partition the fetus from the huge tumor trying to squash it – and still she almost died in labor. For a week after his birth, she lay at death's door with a rabid case of septicemia, half-conscious, bloated on antibiotics and bearing the kind of pain they couldn't numb. "She was moaning all the time, couldn't hardly speak – they sent for the chaplain a couple times," says Ron. When she somehow came through it, though, there was Jordan: the happy, healthy boy she'd suffered to meet.

From her first day home with him, they were inseparable. Except for her work shifts and six-mile runs, McBath took Jordan and his teeming pack of friends everywhere she went. "I was the roller-rink mom, the petting-zoo mom; it was sort of like I had six sons," she recalls. When Jordan was nine, she even pulled him from grade school to teach him herself for five years. "He had a curious mind, reading way above grade level and always asking tons of good questions. I saw him as a leader and wanted to support that with things they weren't doing in class." Delighted to have McBath all to himself, Jordan made her promise that she wouldn't remarry till he left for college or the Marines. But in 2008, she married Curtis McBath, a Delta flight attendant, just as Jordan was hitting puberty and, soon after that, public high school. "His head was spinning from all the changes," she says. "Rebellious, acting out, wouldn't get of his cellphone – and then I got breast cancer." After two lumpectomies, she faced chemo and radiation and one very hard fact of life: It was time for Jordan to live with his dad for a while.

The move wasn't easy on anyone. Jordan, who'd fit in seamlessly at posh Marietta High, found himself suddenly in the peeling hallways of Samuel W. Wolfson High in southside Jacksonville. The hard boys stepped to him in the yard; he was mugged for his phone after school. He sulked through most of a year, flunked a statewide test and was dumped in remedial reading, of all places. His father didn't put up with it for a minute. "He'd be up late talking to girls, so I took away his cellphone, then his TV and Xbox, too. Then I took the door off his room. He'd say, 'But those are my things,' and I'd say, 'No, they're mine; the power they use, that's mine, too.'" Ron enrolled him in virtual after-school, making him work with an online tutor and standing over his shoulder till he'd finished.

By the start of his junior year, the message kicked in; Jordan's mood and grades picked up sharply. He made a pack of friends, aced the statewide tests and became the de facto mayor of the school. "Anything he wore, people would copy; he put a part in his hair, they copied that, too," says Aliyah Harris, his ex-girlfriend, 18, who's been accepted to Clark Atlanta and Florida Atlantic universities. She had as much to do with raising his game as any of the adults in his life. "I told him to get a job – I've got three of 'em myself – and start getting your head right for college. Second, pull your pants up; you're no type of gangsta, even if you listen to Rick Ross." They were Wolfson's power couple, though chaste in the way that church kids are, never finding alone time for sex. "Whether it was me or my wife, someone was always here when Aliyah drove him home from school," says Ron. "We love that girl, but we weren't having surprises. Her father felt the same way."

Aliyah's was one of the last faces Jordan saw before he got back in the car the night he died. "He didn't say much, with his friends standing there, but I knew we were cool again," she says. "He'd matured so much in such a short time – gotten a job and was talking serious about joining the service after school. I went to bed happy that night. Then I woke up, and there's all these texts on my phone. That's when I called my girlfriend and found out."

Jordan died moments after he got to the hospital, where doctors tried mightily to revive him. Ron, who'd gotten a distress call from Leland's mother, wailed as he raced to the ER. They kept him waiting for more than an hour in the visiting room, because Jordan's wallet and ID had fallen out in the parking lot and no one could be sure whose son he was. At length, they let Ron in to sob over the body – and later call McBath with the worst of all news. Or so it seemed to him, until the news got worse. At the precinct later that night, he met up with the other boys, who told him, as best they could through their sobs, what had happened, and why. "No!" he cried. "My son's dead because his music was too loud?"

Since December, there'd been little from Dunn's camp save the news that he'd hired a new lawyer. There'd been no race to claim him by Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, both of whom had leapt to the defense of George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin, and no rallies or mailings by gun-advocacy groups to raise a legal fund for Dunn. He was jettisoned, in fact, by his girlfriend: Rhonda Rouer gave a statement undercutting his claim that he saw a gun.

It was something of a surprise, then, that he appealed for bond and was granted a hearing in the middle of March. Dunn showed up to the Duval County Courthouse hearing wearing a mismatched suit and a smirk. He glared at Jordan's father, who glared right back and nearly had to be restrained by the bailiffs. "I wanted him to look me in the eye," says Davis. "But there's no remorse or decency in that man."

Dunn's witnesses, including his parents and several elderly whites who'd known him since his boyhood, testified that Dunn was a loving son and that nothing in his life till that night marked him as a hothead killer. But the state has multiple witnesses up its sleeve who cast doubt upon that claim. One described Rouer watching in horror as Dunn pumped round after round into the Durango. "Oh, my God! What did you do?" she shrieked as she ran from the store, leaving the wine and chips on the counter. "Get the fuck in the car!" he growled at her before peeling out of the station, according to a man filling his gas tank. There were witnesses confirming what he told Jordan before he fired ("You can't talk to me that way!"), and others describing how he'd opened his door for a better shooting angle at the Durango. As an audition for his defense case, it was a thudding flop. Dunn was denied bail a week later.

But to be fair to his new lawyer, Cory Strolla, how do you defend someone as volatile as Dunn, who by the evidence that exists appears to be a trigger finger waiting to be pulled? According to an investigation by Jacksonville police, reports that were obtained by Rolling Stone, a former neighbor claimed that Dunn once tried to hire him to kill a man who'd sued Dunn's software firm; he also claimed that Dunn had held a gun to the head of one of his two ex-wives, and controlled the other wife, a foreign national, with threats of deportation. According to John Phillips, a prominent Jacksonville lawyer who's representing the interests of Jordan's parents, Dunn's Facebook page, which was hastily taken down, was seething with hate for "media" and Democrats, and contained links to pages like "Fuck the Government!" that rhapsodized armed resistance. In lieu of family photos or snapshots with friends, it showed "what an angry loner he is," says Phillips. Dunn seems to have had few interests besides guns and flying; his father had given him an old single-engine airplane, which he flew whenever it wasn't being fixed.

But aside from an arrest for DUI and another bust for flying into restricted airspace over Kennedy Space Center, there isn't a lot of paper on Dunn. A Florida native, he lived for a time in California, where he designed a software system for retail stores, later returning to his home state on a downwardly mobile vector. Twice divorced, he was renting a cramped condo in Satellite Beach with Rouer and working for his parents at their data firm in a strip mall in Vero Beach. Three weeks before the shooting, in fact, he sold his precious plane, and owned nothing of value besides the Jetta from which he fired 10 shots on Black Friday. His parents are paying his legal fees; Dunn is apparently flat broke.

What little we know of him, though, seems to be more than his grown son did. The two hadn't seen each other in at least five years, according to Chris Dunn's statement to police, nor engaged in much contact since the young man's boyhood, when Dunn and his mother were divorced. Dunn's appearance at Chris' wedding was meant to be an opening, a step toward re-entry into Chris' life. To that end, he'd brought his girlfriend and brand-new puppy and was spending the weekend at a local hotel so that he and Chris, 23, could reconnect. Of course, Dunn had also brought his pistol, a Taurus PT 9mm with one in the chamber and at least a dozen in the clip, another loaded clip in the glove compartment, plus a silencer and a pair of nunchucks. Why anyone would need those at a wedding reception was a matter left untouched at the bail hearing. Strolla had been hired to clean up the mess made by Dunn's first lawyer, Lemonidis, who called the victims "gang members." "She slandered those kids, and we're likely going to sue her for it," says Phillips. "She gave the gun nuts' stump speech at the initial appearance – black-kids-bad, white-men-good – but it wasn't a rant on MySpace, it was live."

Assuming Strolla takes Dunn's case to trial, it may cost every dime his parents have. The state has a dozen witnesses to counter Dunn's claim that he feared for his life before he fired. It bears noting, by the way, that he had to yank the trigger of his pistol for each and every shot, including the seven he aimed at a retreating car. Had any of those hit the gas pumps over the boys' shoulders, Dunn wouldn't be facing four bids of life in prison. (The state, in its wisdom, has declined to seek the death penalty.) He'd have burned alive in a giant fireball, along with countless innocent holiday shoppers.

But because this is Florida, land of gun-law loopholes, Dunn will get two shots to win his freedom. Sometime this year, he will appear at a pretrial hearing in Jacksonville to determine the merits of his Stand Your Ground claim. He will do so not before a jury of his peers but a circuit judge whose ruling of merit will be final. To restate: An elected official from the reddest part of Florida will decide, single-handedly, if Dunn had any basis for feeling threatened by four black teens. "I don't have to prove the threat, just that Mike Dunn believed it," says Strolla from his office in West Palm Beach. (Neither Dunn nor his children or former wives returned phone calls for this story.) "This is a family man who never had a violent incident in his life, who acted because of words said by Jordan Davis. He screamed, 'Fuck you, motherfucker, I'm gonna kill you,' and was trying to open his door to get out. So absolutely, this is a Stand Your Ground case, based on the law in Florida."

Except that Jordan couldn't have gotten out. According to Tevin, although there were several other spaces available, Dunn had parked his Jetta so close to the Durango that the doors couldn't open. And, according to Phillips, there was nothing in that car – no bat or tire iron – that could possibly be mistaken for a gun. All Jordan Davis, an impeccably raised Christian boy with no history of violence himself, could wield against Dunn were words. But in a state that has issued more than a million carry permits, words will now suffice to get you shot dead – and give your shooter a fighting chance to beat the rap.

The horror of shootings is that they ramify forever and form a sort of head wall around the victims. They're trapped inside a day with no before or after, just a fixed recurrence of a monstrous fact that can't be whittled down to human scale. The parents, the siblings, the friends of the dead: They'll never know a time when that hurt doesn't shade them, lurking behind the scrim of scar tissue.

But what happens when the shooter tried to kill you, too, and made every effort to take your life along with the deceased's? The three boys who managed not to die that day are in a class of collateral damage all their own – haunted, yes, by guilt and grief, but also by real-world terror. What if Dunn gets out and comes after me, or if one of these angry white men with guns sees my picture in the paper and gets ideas?

Tevin, who had three shots fired at him at close range, isn't staying in Florida to find out. He and his family are leaving in June, moving in an attempt to put some breathing space between him and his friend's death. "Can't get my work done, laying awake all night, never coming out of my room," he says. "It plays in my head a lot."

"I wake up still in the situation," says Tommie, whose hands shake as he talks. "Anywhere I go, I'm nervous, feeling like someone's gonna do something to me."

And then there's Leland, now a ghost of the kid who was Jordan's best friend in Jacksonville. The day he turned 18, "he went over to Jordan's house and just sat on his bed and cried," says Tanya Booth-Brunson, his mother. "They were supposed to have a huge party together. Now, he doesn't even hardly leave the house. The light's gone out of his eyes."

As for Jordan's parents, they had a choice to make. They could have joined the cable circus of grief-collectors, that smarmy crew of funeral crashers who turn a buck from racist killings. "We got the calls from their producers: 'Oh, come on our show. We'll tell your son's story to the nation,'" says Davis. "But that's not how we were raised, and it's not how we raised Jordan. This is about guns, plain and simple."

Accordingly, they made a couple of talk-show stops, telling Soledad O'Brien and Lawrence O'Donnell that the law was to blame, not race hatred. "I'd heard of Stand Your Ground but didn't know it meant this – that you could shoot someone and hide behind a shield," says Davis. Adds Phillips, their lawyer, "They actually teach that to people when they take the carry-permit class. It's your get-out-of-jail-free card. Use it."

And so, tentatively at first but gaining confidence as they went, Davis and McBath began a quest to get Stand Your Ground repealed. They held rallies at Jacksonville Landing, made trips to Washington to lobby members of Congress, and built a strong following at churches and schools, urging the congregants to call their local reps. "It can't just be the NRA making noise," says McBath. "There's way more of us than there are of them. We've got to lift our voices up too."

On a warm, gusty day in late February, they appeared at an event at the Shiloh Baptist Church in downtown Jacksonville. Twenty-five busloads of school kids were there for a special symposium on black history. A tap dancer performed a seminal blues from the pre-Civil War South. A playwright acted out her stirring piece about a slave girl taken from her parents. Then they brought the show's feature act out: a young, homegrown rapper called J City who tore the roof of with his "Jordan Davis Tribute," a plaintive, angry anthem he'd written for Jordan and Trayvon Martin. Hundreds of kids stood, chant-singing the hook – I done lost some people don't deserve to be gone… . . . deserve to be gone . . .… deserve to be gone – as McBath, in the front row, brushed back tears. J City saw her and waved her onstage; up she went to join him. They rocked there arm in arm, a mother and a kid very much like her own, alive for the grace of a fickle God.

This story is from the April 15th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1181: April 25, 2013