Gun culture figures prominently in hate crimes trial of Greg and Travis McMichael, William Bryan
Federal prosecutors focused on casual and prolific male racism, highlighting derogatory texts and social media posts to demonstrate they were targeting Arbery because he was black. But the testimonies also showed the almost flippant way residents of Satilla Shores, an unincorporated subdivision on the Georgian coast, view guns as part of their daily routines. Their willingness to “arm themselves,” as Travis crudely put it in a social media post, was largely unremarkable, not extraordinary – an illustration of the depth to which guns are embedded in public life. American.
Residents of the mixed-income, mostly white neighborhood carried guns while investigating reports of break-ins. They worried in group chats when their guns were stolen from unlocked vehicles. At last fall’s state trial in which the McMichaels and Bryan were found guilty of murdering Arbery, a woman said she owned a gun for protection despite not having not been the victim of a crime for 30 years. Another said her husband “wore it every day”.
Testifying in the federal case last week, Matt Albensee, a longtime Satilla Shores resident, said he too was armed when he called police to report seeing a man, later identified as Arbery, in a house under construction on February 23. 2020. It was the day Travis McMichael shot Arbery with a 12 gauge shotgun.
When asked why he had a gun, Albense replied, “It’s my right.”
“Guns are as ordinary in some communities as household appliances or tools,” said Austin Sarat, chair of political science at Amherst College, who has written about American gun culture.
In Canada and other Western countries, gun ownership is much rarer and gun violence much lower. But Americans see guns as part of the “social networks” in which people participate in civic life, he said.
Gun ownership in the United States has remained relatively stable over three decades, with about 44% of households owning at least one gun, according to a Gallup survey in 2020. The country’s homicide rate of 3, 96 deaths per 100,000 population in 2019 ranks 32nd in the world, according to a University of Washington survey. But that was more than eight times the rate in Canada and nearly 100 times the rate in Britain.
Many US states, including Georgia, have laws, some rooted in Civil War-era statutes, that allow citizens to make arrests and also have inflexible laws granting an individual the right to fight an assailant, even if the person being attacked can safely back away. Critics said the laws encouraged vigilantism.
“The ordinariness of firearms can create situations where what might be something that wouldn’t have produced death and violence will produce death and violence,” Sarat said.
After Arbery’s death, Gregory McMichael told police that he and his son grabbed their guns thinking Arbery might have a gun. Even as Arbery was bleeding on the street, Gregory McMichael said he feared the 25-year-old was “looking for a gun”. But prosecutors noted that Arbery had nothing on him as he roamed Satilla Shores in shorts and a t-shirt — not even a backpack or a cellphone.
Glynn County elected officials have denounced Arbery’s murder and called the actions of the defendants unconscionable. But they rejected the idea that crime stemmed from a pervasive gun culture.
David O’Quinn, chairman of the County Board of Commissioners, said he believed most residents of Glynn County would have called the police to report activity they considered suspicious, without resorting to vigilance.
“It’s not uncommon for people in southern Georgia to have a shotgun. Quite a few may have guns and permits. Some can even carry it in their car,” O’Quinn said. “I think it’s unusual to grab guns and go after someone, and that’s not typical of people in Glynn County.”
Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, and Travis McMichael, who served in the US Coast Guard, each received formal firearms training. After Arbery’s death, the elder McMichael told police that his .357 Magnum was a service weapon, even though he was no longer affiliated with the police department. He was stripped of his law enforcement certification and arrest authority a year before the deadly encounter, after repeated failures to keep his training current, documents from the Brunswick Judicial District Attorney’s Office show. .
In recent years, gun thefts from vehicles have increased in Georgia and other states, a trend that some law enforcement officials have attributed to the passage of laws making it easier to keep firearms inside vehicles.
On New Years Day in 2020, Travis McMichael called the police to report that one of his guns had been stolen from his unlocked truck. Three weeks earlier, on December 8, 2019, a neighbor had posted in a chat group that guns had been stolen from her husband’s truck. Defense attorneys presented these accounts as evidence that the residents of Satilla Shores were increasingly alarmed by crime.
Yet, while community members were uncomfortable with intruders, their own actions sometimes seemed to increase the risk of violence.
During the state trial, Brook Perez said a neighbor, Larry English, shared surveillance video of a man, later identified as Arbery, wandering the site of a house English was building. . On the night of Feb. 11, 2020, 12 days before Arbery died, Perez said, her husband, Diego, went to check on the house after another report of intrusion. He took a gun with him, as he usually did, she said.
In her testimony, Perez admitted she was concerned when she realized Gregory and Travis McMichael were also heading home. She feared that they would mistakenly consider Diego a threat because of his weapon. Perez was watching from her yard – holding a flashlight and her own Para Ordnance 1911, .45 caliber pistol – and she tried to alert the McMichaels to her husband’s presence.
“It’s a miracle that Diego Perez and Greg McMichael didn’t kill each other inside this house,” county prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors in the state case.
The prosecutions of Arbery’s killers have not strayed into the burning issue of gun possession, even though the federal charges against the McMichaels include the use of a firearm in a violent crime. (Bryan had joined Arbery’s pursuit but was unarmed.)
Former Justice Department attorney Jonathan M. Smith said these charges are typically used by prosecutors to stretch sentencing guidelines in gang or drug-related violence cases. . Smith, who is executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said he doesn’t believe the government intends to make an overt political statement on gun control.
But he pointed out that while conservatives often speak out against gun violence in densely populated urban centers, many guns used in crime in cities are bought or stolen from more rural communities. Chicago authorities estimated that 60% of guns recovered were purchased out of state, with Indiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin being among the top sources.
Last month, Republicans in Georgia took steps to make gun ownership easier, introducing “constitutional porting” bills to eliminate gun license requirements. State Sen. Sheila McNeill (R), who represents a district that includes Satilla Shores, supports the proposals, her office said.
The executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun rights group, said he carried his licensed handgun almost everywhere he went – including, recently, to the chiropractor’s office. The only exceptions, Jerry Henry said, are federal buildings and sites such as the post office, where it is illegal to enter with a firearm.
In an interview, Henry blamed the McMichaels and Bryan for trying to arrest Arbery by a citizen, and he stressed that people shouldn’t leave their guns behind when getting out of their cars.
But Henry pointed out that he carries a gun because “it’s better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have it.” … You have to be ready to defend yourself, and you have to be ready wherever you go.
The McMichaels seemed to have followed that philosophy. Prosecutors said Travis, who has a young son, bragged on Facebook about keeping his shotgun loaded. The day the McMichaels chased Arbery in their truck, Gregory rode in the passenger side, gun ready, astride the toddler’s car seat.
Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.