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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver stands his ground against racist, needless stand your ground laws

John Oliver
John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

With its twice-impeached figurehead currently scribbling nonsensically treasonous press releases during his time as a golf club greeter in Florida, John Oliver has had time of late to tackle white supremacy’s trickle-down effects all over the nation. Sunday’s Last Week Tonight main story examined the so-called “stand your ground” gun laws that have taken hold in some 30 states across the country, and made his all-too-predictable airtight case that good old American racism is really what’s at the root of these literal “get out of jail free” cards—for certain people.


And that “literal” isn’t just whistling “Dixie,” as Oliver held up one of this week’s examples of representative villainy (where a complex issue is exemplified by one egregiously illustrative person or organization) by spotlighting one legal aid ambulance-chaser group, the USCCA. Standing for the United States Concealed Carry Association, the group’s spokesperson is seen touting the handy wallet card containing a script for you to read to the police verbatim should you, say, shoot someone who’s playing their music too loud, or who dared argue with you over how much dogs can weigh. Those are just two examples of cases where minor incidents led to one guy being dead and the other effortfully reading out just what to say in order to claim immunity from prosecution under various states’ so-called “stand your ground” gun laws.

Now, Oliver could hammer away at certain individuals who are hog-wild about this, again literal, license to kill, and he, yeah, he does do that. Like the folksy-seeming grandma with the harrowing story of facing down a carful of bad guys with a gun, only to be told by the police that, if she’d shot anyone, she’d have been the one to get arrested. That that lady turned out to be one Marion Hammer, first female president of the NRA, who also memorable lobbied hard against Florida schoolchildren’s attempt to name the scrub jay as the state bird because it’s friendly habit of eating out of your hand indicates the bird’s (deep, cleansing breath) “welfare mentality” is merely a coincidence, surely. Or the TV interviewee gushing over the prospect of Georgia’s since-passed stand your ground law who’s happily wearing a Confederate flag hat with a picture of Robert E. Lee and the slogan, “Pride Of The South.” (Oliver shows a Black man interviewed in the same Georgia parking lot who brings up the pesky fact that, should he have been afraid that a person was approaching him with a full camera crew, he could have just shot the interviewer under said law.)

Of course, as Oliver notes, that’s a great point, undermined completely by the fact that “stand your ground” cases are judged overwhelmingly differently depending on the skin tones of the people involved. That’s because, as Oliver explains, the whole premise of these laws is one of “perceived fear,” and that—for some inexplicable reason—white people’s fear is its own “get out of jail free” card. “They can exult a white person’s fear over a Black person’s life,” explained Oliver after playing a clip of Ohio lawmaker Stephanie Howse, a Black woman, pleading with her white colleague not to pass such a law in their state since, as she asked, “What do you do in places and spaces when your presence, literally your face—your face—causes someone to be fearful of you?” (Her colleagues went ahead and passed a stand your ground law anyway, presumably because that Black lady scared them.)

But back to the USCCA, whose script Oliver shows a white shooter (Nick Julian IV) actually reading off of their card on the phone with police after he’d just shot a man named Carlos Garcia. (Garcia was the man shot to death for allegedly playing his music too loud, as mentioned earlier.) Then there’s Texas’ Joe Horn, who’s heard getting righteously pissed at the 911 operator for telling him not to take the law into his hands (and defiantly citing Texas’ own just-passed stand your ground law while he does so) before getting his shotgun and killing tow people breaking into his neighbor’s house. Hill (who Oliver notes looks like “Bobby Hill grew up and sucked”) is shown on Fox News being applauded by a (white) Texas crowd for his extrajudicial, un-prosecuted double killing.

As Oliver notes, urging people to call their reps to repeal these “free-for-all to shoot someone who scares you” laws, one peek at the statistics shows that these “redundant solutions to a made-up problem” are patently and transparently biased toward those scared, scared white people. Just ask pregnant Michigan woman Siwatu-Salama Ra, who waved a (licensed, unloaded) gun at a woman she thought was threatening her and her other child. Her own “stand your ground” defense was thrown out, she was sentenced to two years in jail, and wound up giving birth in shackles. Oh, Ra is Black.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.