Earlier this year in Bremerton, Washington, an elementary school student was seriously wounded when a gun in her classmate’s backpack discharged. Just two weeks later in Marysville, Washington, a 7-year girl was sitting in the parked family car while her dad and mum were outside the vehicle when she was shot by one of her three younger siblings who had found their father’s gun. She later died. Her father is a police officer for Marysville, Washington. And within days, in Tacoma, Washington, an unsupervised 3-year old boy found his father’s gun in the family car and killed himself with it.
Meanwhile, across the country in Sanford, Florida, an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot dead by the now infamous neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman.
The death of Trayvon Martin has, at least, stimulated a debate on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which has been emulated entirely or in part by more than 30 states. However, what’s really needed is for that debate to extend to the whole concept of allowing firearms to be conveyed outside the home without any restrictions.
Four horrible incidents in a matter of a few weeks stand as testimony to the fact that too many Americans do not treat firearms with the care, respect and just plain seriousness they warrant. That fact when combined with the ease with which virtually anyone without a criminal record can purchase a firearm and, in most states, obtain a permit to carry (where a permit is even required) potentially endangers all of us. The “Stand Your Ground” nonsense is the icing on the cake. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, Congress is considering a law that would make it possible for the likes of George Zimmerman to legally take their guns anywhere in the country, even to states with restrictive concealed weapon and carry permit laws.
The Trayvon Martin case has focused, mistakenly in my view, on his race as the reason Zimmerman allegedly followed and then shot him during a struggle. I’m not convinced that racism was the primary culprit, even though there’s little doubt that black youths are more at risk than whites in situations similar to the one Martin encountered.
Yet the rest of us should take no comfort in the thought that our kids or husbands or fathers or brothers are safer from the George Zimmerman’s of the world. Instead, we should ask ourselves what gave Zimmerman the courage (for want of a better word) to follow the six-foot-plus Martin, instead of staying in his vehicle and letting the police do their job? The answer is his handgun and the knowledge that he could use it if he found himself overmatched; and the law or rather the lack of sensible ones that facilitated the confrontation.
Someone like George Zimmerman should never have been allowed outside his home with a firearm, and he should not now be able to legally cite self-defense as his justification for shooting Martin. The fact that he was and can should be a cause of deep concern to all of us. How can any of us feel safe when a confrontation between acquaintances or strangers over something quite trivial, can escalate into a shooting which can then be justified on the grounds that the shooter felt his life threatened – even when the threat came from someone who was unarmed.
In Florida shootings where self-defense was used as the justifications have spiked. The fact is there was a time when we could only imagine having our head blown off if we were dumb enough to break into someone’s home. Now it can happen in a public place if we exchange harsh words with someone who gets pissed off enough and has his gun with him. In addition to divisions between rich and poor and left and right, we have a new one developing between the armed and the unarmed. And which one do you think has the power?
It’s an issue that needs a healthy public debate and far more research on the effect of concealed weapon and Stand Your Ground laws. So far the NRA have had it all their own way in pushing the expansion of gun rights beyond what is sane and prudent because ordinary Americans have let them. It’s high time to take another look.
One of the more specious arguments advanced by the gun lobby is that the individual right to own a firearm is our protection against governmental tyranny. But tyranny comes in many forms. Just ask the parents of Trayvon Martin.