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Arbery hate-crimes trial highlights everyday racism — and casual gun culture

Gregory McMichael sits during opening statements last fall in the state murder trial of him, William “Roddie” Bryan and Travis McMichael in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Gwynn County, Ga. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Racing to chase after Ahmaud Arbery, Gregory McMichael jumped into a pickup truck with his .357 magnum revolver. He was in such a hurry, he later told investigators, that he left his cellphone behind.

McMichael offered that oversight to explain why he did not immediately call police to report Arbery, a Black man whom he suspected of theft and trespassing. That McMichael reached for his firearm over his phone, however, also revealed a glaring subtext of the hate-crimes trial that began last week and is expected to conclude Monday against McMichael, 66, his son Travis, 36, and a third White man, William “Roddie” Bryan, 52.

Federal prosecutors have focused on the men’s casual and prolific racism, highlighting derogatory texts and social media posts to demonstrate that they targeted Arbery because he was Black. But witness testimony also showcased the almost casual way in which residents of Satilla Shores, an unincorporated subdivision in coastal Georgia, consider guns part of their daily routines. Their willingness to “arm up,” as Travis put it crudely in a social media post, was largely mundane, not extraordinary — an illustration of just how thoroughly guns are embedded into American public life.

Residents of the mostly White, mixed-income neighborhood carried weapons while investigating reports of break-ins. They fretted on group chats when their guns were stolen from unlocked vehicles. During the state trial last fall at which the McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murdering Arbery, one woman said she owned a gun for protection despite not having been the victim of a crime in 30 years. Another said her husband “carries every day.”

Testifying in the federal case last week, Matt Albenze, a longtime Satilla Shores resident, said he, too, was armed when he called police to report seeing a man, later identified as Arbery, at an under-construction house on Feb. 23, 2020. That was the day Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery with a 12-gauge shotgun.

When asked why he had a gun, Albenze replied: “It’s my right.”

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“Guns are as ordinary in some communities as household appliances or tools,” said Austin Sarat, the political science chair at Amherst College, who has written about American gun culture.

In Canada and other Western countries, gun ownership is much rarer and rates of gun violence are far lower. But Americans consider guns part of “the social networks” in which people participate in civic life, he said.

Gun ownership in the United States has remained relatively steady over three decades, with about 44 percent of households having at least one gun, according to a Gallup survey in 2020. The country’s homicide rate of 3.96 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019 ranked 32nd globally, according to a survey from the University of Washington. But it was more than eight times the rate in Canada and nearly 100 times the rate in Britain.

Numerous U.S. states, including Georgia, have laws, some rooted in Civil War-era statutes, that allow citizens to make arrests and also have stand-your-ground laws granting an individual the right to fight an aggressor, even if the person being attacked can safely back away. Critics have said the laws encourage vigilantism.

“The ordinariness of guns can create situations in which what might be something that would not have produced death and violence is going to produce death and violence,” Sarat said.

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He pointed to Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who fatally shot two men and wounded a third after taking a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle to patrol the streets of Kenosha, Wis., during civic unrest in 2020. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense and was acquitted of five felony counts, including homicide.

After Arbery was killed, Gregory McMichael told police that he and his son grabbed their firearms, believing Arbery might have a gun. Even as Arbery lay bleeding on the street, Gregory McMichael said, he worried that the 25-year-old was “going for a weapon.” But prosecutors noted that Arbery had nothing on him as he jogged through Satilla Shores in shorts and a T-shirt — not even a backpack or a cellphone.

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Elected officials in Glynn County have denounced Arbery’s killing and called the defendants’ actions unconscionable. But they rejected the notion that the crime stemmed from a ubiquitous gun culture.

David O’Quinn, the chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said he believes that most residents of Glynn County would have called the police to report activity they considered suspicious, not resorted to vigilantism.

“It’s not unusual for people in southern Georgia to have a shotgun. A good number maybe have pistols and have permits. Some may even carry in their car,” O’Quinn said. “I do think it’s unusual to grab guns and go after someone, and that’s not typical of the people in Glynn County.”

Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, and Travis McMichael, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, each had formal firearms training. After Arbery’s death, the elder McMichael told police that his .357 magnum was a service-issued weapon, even though he no longer was affiliated with the police department. He was stripped of his law enforcement certification and power to arrest a year before the deadly encounter, after repeated failures to keep his training current, according to documents from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.

In recent years, gun thefts from vehicles have spiked in Georgia and other states, a trend that some law enforcement officials traced to the passage of laws making it easier to keep guns inside vehicles.

On New Year’s Day in 2020, Travis McMichael called police to report that a gun of his had been stolen from his unlocked truck. Three weeks earlier, on Dec. 8, 2019, a neighbor had posted in a chat group that guns were stolen from her husband’s truck. Defense lawyers presented those accounts as evidence that Satilla Shores residents were increasingly alarmed about crime.

Yet, if community members were uneasy about intruders, their own actions at times appeared to increase the risk of violence.

In the state trial, Brook Perez testified that a neighbor, Larry English, had shared surveillance video of a man, later identified as Arbery, wandering around the site of a house English was building. On the night of Feb. 11, 2020, 12 days before Arbery was killed, Perez said, her husband, Diego, went to check on the house after another report of trespassing. He took a gun with him, as he usually did, she said.

In her testimony, Perez acknowledged that she was concerned when she realized that Gregory and Travis McMichael also were headed toward the house. She worried they would mistakenly view Diego as a threat because of his weapon. Perez was watching from her yard — holding a flashlight and her own Para Ordnance 1911, a .45-caliber pistol — and she tried to warn the McMichaels of her husband’s presence.

“It’s a miracle Diego Perez and Greg McMichael didn’t kill each other inside that house,” county prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors in the state case.

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Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and William “Roddie” Bryan was sentenced to life. (Video: Reuters)

The prosecutions of Arbery’s killers have not strayed into the hot-button issue of gun ownership, even though the federal charges for the McMichaels include using a firearm in a crime of violence. (Bryan had joined the pursuit of Arbery but was not armed.)

Former Justice Department lawyer Jonathan M. Smith said such charges are typically used by prosecutors to lengthen sentencing guidelines in cases of gang- or drug-related violence. Smith, who is executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said he did not think the government was intending to make an overt political statement about gun control.

But he pointed out that although conservatives often decry gun violence in densely populated urban centers, many of the guns used in crimes within cities are purchased in or stolen from more-rural communities. Chicago authorities have estimated that 60 percent of recovered guns were purchased out of state, with Indiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin among the top sources.

Last month, Republicans in Georgia moved to make it easier to own firearms, introducing “constitutional carry” bills to eliminate gun licensing requirements. State Sen. Sheila McNeill (R), who represents a district that includes Satilla Shores, is backing the proposals, her office said.

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The executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun rights group, said he carries his licensed handgun almost everywhere he goes — including, on a recent day, to the chiropractor’s office. The only exceptions, Jerry Henry said, are federal buildings, and sites such as the post office, where it is against the law to enter with a firearm.

In an interview, Henry faulted the McMichaels and Bryan for attempting a citizen’s arrest of Arbery, and he emphasized that people should not leave their firearms behind when they get out of their cars.

But Henry stressed that he carries a gun because “it’s better to have one and not need it than need it and not have it. … You’ve got to be prepared to defend yourself, and you’ve got to be prepared everywhere you go.”

The McMichaels appeared to have followed that philosophy. Prosecutors said Travis, who has a young son, had boasted on Facebook that he kept his home shotgun loaded. On the day the McMichaels chased Arbery in their truck, Gregory rode on the passenger side, revolver at the ready, straddling the toddler’s car seat.

Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.