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Confrontation should have ended with a punch thrown or sheriff's deputies being called — but there was a gun

When I was growing up in Miami, now and again my dad would drive us kids out to the swampy hinterlands, no houses, no people. There he would show us how to shoot his gun.

He was no card-carrying National Rifle Association member vowing that you'd have to pry it from his cold, dead fingers, just a man raised around guns and taught to respect them.

I can't tell you what kind it was (being a self-respecting Southerner, he also owned a shotgun), but I do remember how it felt in my hands, heavy and cool, as powerful and alive as a python. It made you want to aim and shoot. I did not like it.

One of the worst, seemingly inevitable stories you cover as a reporter is the one about a kid who finds a gun that an adult left on a dresser or under a mattress. Someone is dead, a friend or a little brother, because even a child's hands know a gun's purpose. But that's only one of an endless variation of the someone-had-a-gun stories you write, fired deliberately or accidentally, in anger or because it was there.

On a September Sunday, with our Florida summer just easing into fall, a father and his 8-year-old daughter played basketball at a park in a quiet Valrico neighborhood.

A 14-year-old boy came up to ask if he could skateboard there. The dad, David James, said okay. Then 69-year-old Trevor Dooley came out of his house to say it wasn't allowed in the park.

At worst, the confrontation should have ended at with a punch thrown or sheriff's deputies being called. But there was a gun.

According to investigators, Dooley had it tucked in the waist of his pants. They said the men argued. Dooley turned to leave. James said something about Dooley having a gun. Dooley turned and took it out. James lunged to disarm him. They struggled and fell. The single shot hit James in the chest.

And so a daughter grows up without her father. A school bus driver whose family calls him quiet, intelligent and loving, faces prison.

Afterward, Dooley unloaded the gun and waited for deputies. This was not a man who stepped out onto his lawn intending to kill a neighbor over a skateboarder. But he had this gun.

Something called the castle doctrine says your home is your castle, and if you are threatened with great bodily harm or death there, you can respond with force. Even for those of us who don't like guns, it's hard to argue against this. But five years ago, Florida passed a stand-your-ground law that says if you're so threatened anywhere you have a right to be — like a park — you can shoot.

It's no surprise some police and prosecutors do not much like this. They worry it encourages, even legalizes, vigilantism. Worse, it removes common sense in situations that might be defused by a dose of it: I could easily retreat from this threat, but I don't have to.

Dooley may use a stand-your-ground defense against a manslaughter charge. (He will have to overcome the hurdle of other charges of improperly exhibiting and openly carrying a gun, since the law requires that you were otherwise acting legally when you stood your ground.) Still, he could win.

On those afternoons in the middle of nowhere with my father, aiming at beer cans and tree trunks, I think he wanted us to see that with power comes responsibility — including knowing when not to use it.

And even if bad law says you can.

Confrontation should have ended with a punch thrown or sheriff's deputies being called — but there was a gun 10/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 9:51am]
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