Two months after the death of Ajike “AJ” Owens, cries for gun reform legislation and justice still ring throughout the Gainesville community.
Dozens of residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Wednesday at the GNV Bridge Community Center to commemorate the life of Owens, a Black mother of four who was fatally shot June 2.
Several local advocacy groups organized the Wednesday night event, including Moms Demand Action Alachua County, the Alachua County branch of NAACP, M.A.M.A.’s Club, the Greater Duval Neighborhood Association, Beyond Grieving LLC and the Against All Odds Movement. The vigil featured speeches about gun violence, artistic performances and a candle-lighting ceremony.
Essence Thomas, who founded the Against All Odds Movement and helped host the event, said Owens’ story resonated with her as a Black woman. Thomas said her goal with hosting the vigil was to mourn the loss of Owens and raise awareness about how gun violence continues to afflict communities like Gainesville and Ocala.
“We can heal through the arts, we can heal through our voices and stories,” she said. “The Gainesville community is active. We are here and we do care.”
Florida state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville, 20 delivered a speech at the vigil about the Florida legislature and racism’s role in enabling gun violence. She criticized state gun legislation, including Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and the recently enacted permitless carry bill.
“This battle is not over,” Hayes Hinson said. “Florida’s callous dismissal for the value of all life but most especially Black life has been brought to the attention of the whole country and indeed the whole world. It matters that justice be served for the Black community.”
Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law allows residents to use “deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.”
Owens was shot through a closed door by her white neighbor Susan Lorincz after a dispute between Lorincz and Owens’ children near their Ocala homes, according to law enforcement.
Authorities did not officially bring charges against Lorincz until four days after Owens’ death, when they established the incident did not fall under the Stand Your Ground Law.
Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said the law “was not justified” in this case, and Owens’ death “was simply a killing,” according to the sheriff’s office Facebook page.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office charged Lorincz with manslaughter with a firearm along with culpable negligence, battery and assault July 6. Manslaughter with a firearm is a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Lorincz pleaded not guilty, and her trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 13.
“We’re going to be watching,” Hayes Hinson said. “We’re going to be monitoring. We’re gonna make sure she gets what’s coming to her.”
“Stand your ground” statutes across the country reveal severe racial disparities. Research from the Duke Center for Firearms Law shows that in instances where the shooter is white and the victim is Black, the rate of justifiable homicide is 34%. However, when the shooter is Black and the victim is white, the rate of justifiable homicide is only 3%.
Owens’ family urged the Department of Justice to upgrade Lorincz’s manslaughter charge to murder and consider hate crime charges.
However, State Attorney William Gladson said in a statement that there is not enough evidence to charge Lorincz with murder due to a lack of evidence that shows Lorincz expressed “hatred, spite, ill will or evil intent” toward Owens at the time of the killing.
The sheriff’s office released body camera footage captured between Feb. 25, 2022, and April 25, 2023, on July 3, recounting Lorincz’s numerous complaints about neighborhood playing near her house. The footage also shows neighborhood children alleging Lorincz had used racial slurs against them.
Kali Blount, a 66-year-old community activist who lost his father to gun violence when he was 21, attended the vigil to show support for those suffering from Owens’ passing.
He left the event grappling with how humanity has been plagued by gun violence and hatred, unsure how society can move forward.
“We don’t justify the oxygen we consume,” he said.
Rebecca Darnell, the 70-year-old legislative lead for Moms Demand Action Alachua County and vigil organizer, has a 20-year-old daughter who grew up participating in active shooter drills in school.
Owens’ death draws attention to how the nation’s gun violence epidemic is impacting younger generations, Darnell said.
“The legacy that we’re leaving our children is not a good one and I think we all must be working to change that,” she said. “This woman has four children – four motherless children. Those children are traumatized forever.”
Moms Demand Action Alachua County will participate in the upcoming Gun Violence Prevention Summit hosted by the city of Gainesville, which will take place Sunday and Monday.
Darnell said having community discussions about how to tackle gun violence is instrumental to achieving her organization’s legislative goals, including getting the Stand Your Ground Law repealed.
“If each of us stand up and take a stance against these dangerous laws, we can change things,” she said. “That’s what we hope to do.”