More than half of the states in the U.S. have passed "stand your ground" laws, which allow a person to use deadly force without obligation to retreat when faced with a perceived threat of bodily harm. Florida was the first state to enact such a law in 2005, and it became the focus of widespread debate on the law's effects after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The controversy intensified with the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed the unarmed teenager.
Not as well known as the Martin case but more revealing of the issues raised by stand your ground laws was the killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, also in Florida in 2012, after a dispute over loud music at a gas station. The circumstances surrounding Davis' death and the subsequent murder trial of assailant Michael Dunn are the focus of British filmmaker Marc Silver's mournful documentary 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets. Though the film intends to put stand your ground laws on trial, it moves beyond abstract arguments to reveal the true human cost exacted by these laws.
The basic facts surrounding Davis' death were not in dispute. Dunn pulled into a gas station next to a car in which four teenage boys (including Davis) were playing hip-hop music at high volume. Dunn asked them to turn it down and they complied, but Davis objected and got into an argument with Dunn. Dunn pulled a gun from his glove box and fired 10 shots at the car, continuing to shoot even as the teens tried to back out of the station. Dunn later claimed he saw a shotgun in the car and that Davis directly threatened his life, but no weapon was found. This is where a "perceived" threat, as written in the Florida law, comes into question. How can a jury know what went on in a defendant's mind as he reached for a loaded gun?
That issue plays out in unexpected ways in the real-life courtroom drama of 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets. Silver was granted rare permission to stage a three-camera shoot at the trial, bringing a cinematic quality to the typically dry proceedings that anchor the film. The fact that Davis is white and all the teens were African-American is central to understanding what happened, but no mention of race was allowed at trial because the shooting was not classified as a hate crime. The surviving teens' testimony and interview material shot for the film reveal a group of average suburban kids primarily interested in girls and basketball. But to the 45-year-old Dunn they were gangster rappers hell-bent on his destruction. It all adds up to a difficult portrait of contemporary race relations and cultural stereotypes.
Dunn and his family declined to be interviewed for the film, but 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets allows him to speak through courtroom testimony, police interrogation footage and tapes of phone calls Dunn made to his fiance from jail. It's easy to dismiss Dunn as a racist or a fool, especially as he claims victimhood and compares himself to a "rape girl who gets blamed for wearing skimpy clothes." But as the film makes painfully clear, Dunn would never have felt empowered to go for that gun without stand your ground behind him.