The Weight of a Gun
The Trayvon Martin case has a number of elements which are, to say the least, distracting. The fact that the police accepted Zimmerman’s story and seemed to dismiss Martin as a criminal, failing even to identify him in a timely fashion. The fact that Zimmerman’s wounds were not at all apparent from then-current evidence, and that police may not have collected evidence properly. The fact that parts of the 911 call were unclear, and there was not a small amount of media sensationalism regarding an assumed racial epithet. All of this fired up discussions of racial profiling, police collusion, and the possibility of a conspiracy. While this may have helped motivate the police to act more properly on the case, it also created a flurry of red herrings.
This only got worse as time went on, with problems in the other direction as well. Which photos of Trayvon were used created complaints, and that the friend who Trayvon was on the phone with had made false statements under oath. All of these became issues that everyone focused on.
Today was no different. Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, posted (or re-posted) an image on Twitter:
While this throws a certain amount of doubt as to whether there is indeed racism in the Zimmerman household, it is yet another red herring—possibly the mother of all red herrings. Robert is not George, and George should not be held responsible for crap his brother posts. Whether or not Robert intended only to demonstrate how photographs can be used to make any associations and that people should not judge Trayvon Martin based on his “harmless friendly teen” images, the post was the height of idiocy and insensitivity—and not the least bit relevant to the main questions of the case.
These distractions are not only less relevant, but they distort perceptions: for example, so much attention was placed on whether or not Zimmerman had any injuries, that when photos came out showing the injuries were real, many seemed to assume that was the end of it, case closed—as if that were the only real question in the case.
At the time when the story first broke, and still today, I held and do hold that most of that is irrelevant, and there is one central issue here: George Zimmerman was armed, and deliberately left his car to follow and confront someone who only looked suspicious to him. I hold that a key lesson of this incident is the cavalier attitude we have assumed toward the carrying and use of guns, especially in terms of vigilantism.
This is what I posted almost a year ago, comparing Zimmerman with Rodney Peairs, the man who shot and killed Yoshi Hattori:
[T]he most significant factor, at least to my reckoning, was that the men who wielded the guns failed to act responsibly. Neither did what they were supposed to do. Rodney Peairs, the man who shot Yoshi Hattori, had a right to defend his home–but he violated that precept when he unnecessarily stepped outside his home to actively confront the “intruders.” No matter how it played out in terms of specifics, George Zimmerman made the same error: instead of holding back and allowing trained professionals to do their job, he pursued Martin, and Martin is now dead as a result. In both cases, the men with guns felt the necessity to confront the people they felt threatened by, no doubt emboldened by the possession of their weapons. …
Peairs and Zimmerman both owned guns, and they both assumed a right to step beyond their own bounds and confront people they believed to be criminals. That is an explosive combination that will result in the deaths of innocent people. Peairs required no training to be armed in his home; Zimmerman only needed to take a few hours of gun safety courses before he was allowed to walk the streets armed. If either received training which firmly emphasized that they retreat from confrontation instead of seek it out, it certainly did not take.
In my mind, Zimmerman is guilty. Not because I know how the specifics played out, that Martin did not assault him, or anything else. Instead, it was because Zimmerman was the one holding a gun, he did not need to pursue Martin (the 911 call made that clear), and so he bore responsibility.
As far as I’m concerned, that by itself should be a separate element in any judgment about Zimmerman. What happened specifically after that—whether he initiated the confrontation with Martin or was attacked, whether there was justification to shoot or not—these I see as separate issues.
Zimmerman carried a gun. He willfully engaged in vigilante behavior. He left his car and followed a suspect, against the instructions of the police, apparently assuming too much about who he was following, apparently without thinking how his actions might be perceived were the person in fact innocent.
What happened after that was a result of this choice on his part.
I think this needs to be emphasized and recognized as a central issue. How photos are used in journalism, the significance of race and racial profiling, even the details of the confrontation itself—these all are relevant within their own contexts, but irrelevant to a very critical issue.
That issue is armed engagement: that, when you carry or use a gun, you must also assume a responsibility to be cautious in the extreme.
We have moved in the opposite direction, sending all manner of signals—cultural and legal—telling people to shoot first and ask questions later.
That has to stop, it has to be reversed. People need to be sent the message: if you pick up the gun, you should feel the weight of the responsibility it carries.
It also highlights a critical element of gun control: training and licensing. These are absolutely essential and should be required nationwide.