Trayvon Martin and Some Thoughts on Gun Laws

A lot of the blogs and news sites have been covering the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.  The basic facts are that a young black man was returning from the store, when a “neighborhood watch volunteer” named George Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious.  He called  911, and was told to wait for the police.  Instead, he decided to accost young Trayvon.  He had a “carry permit” from the state of Florida, and was armed.  In the resulting scuffle, he shot Trayvon Martin, killing him.  He has not been charged, since Florida has a “Stand Your Ground” law, which gave people who thought they were being threatened the right to use force.  Which is what Mr Zimmerman claims, that he was “acting in self defense.”   Here’s something I haven’t seen discussed:  What if Trayvon had also been licensed to carry and had been armed?

The Washington Post has a good blog up about this case, which looks at it from the young man’s perspective:

Trayvon Martin was 17 and looked younger. He was carrying iced tea and Skittles. He was unarmed. George Zimmerman must have been terrifying — larger, older, carrying a weapon. Instead, Zimmerman was, by his own account, terrified. He pursued, shot and killed Trayvon.

In other words, had Trayvon been armed as well, according to the same law he would have been perfectly justified in shooting George Zimmerman.  Consider that he’s walking down a dark street returning from a store, which he had every right to do, when a man with a gun runs up to him. He doesn’t know the man, he has no idea of what he wants, but he knows he’s seeing a serious threat.  This could have ended very badly for George Zimmerman instead of badly for Trayvon Martin.

This is why I often despair when I see yet another gun law being passed.  The political equation by various gun rights activists seems to be “we can solve the problem with more guns,” and “well, let’s make it easier to shoot someone.”  Over a year ago, I said:

I grew up around guns. They were part of the culture. Almost every adult I knew had them, and used them. But you know what? Not a single one of them would have dreamed of bringing a gun to church, to public meetings, to schools, or to the local bars. It just wasn’t done. You didn’t bring a loaded weapon into the house, either. It was all common sense to them. Guns were tools they used, dangerous, and to be taken seriously. They knew exactly what a bullet could do – they were combat veterans and hunters. They’d seen it, and didn’t have any illusions about them. That’s the ethic I grew up with, and what I still have.

I should also add that none of them felt the need to walk around continually armed.  Years ago, I went through park ranger training.  The job was to patrol state park campgrounds to enforce various rules and regulations.   During the training, several people asked if we would be allowed to carry guns.  The answer was an emphatic No!  Absolutely not!  Then the instructors (who were police officers) told us why we weren’t.

There were three big reasons we weren’t allowed to carry firearms on duty.  First, and foremost, was that we weren’t trained in their use, and we wouldn’t be.   The second reason was that carrying a gun automatically escalates the situation.  The third reason was that they did not want us putting ourselves into serious situations without back-up.  As we were told, “If you think it’s potentially dangerous enough that you would need a gun, get out of there and call for help.”  As I read about the Travyon Martin case in Florida, and see examples of it elsewhere, I’m reminded of those reasons.

Everything I’m reading about this case tells me that those were lessons that the shooter didn’t know.   Yes, I know what Florida’s requirements are for a permit, but that is not the same as proper training to use it – or just as importantly not use it – in a situation like this.   Carrying a gun escalated the situation.  People act differently when they’re carrying a gun.  Not only do you behave differently (yes, I do know, I’ve carried weapons) but people react differently to you when you have one.   Consider that Mr Zimmerman decided to confront Trayvon.  He acted aggressively, when he shouldn’t have, and Trayon’s reactions reflected that.  Finally, Zimmerman was told to wait for the police, but hey, he had a gun, so he didn’t.   Yes, he was licensed to carry it, but rather than waiting for the police, he made a decision to confront a young man walking the streets.  In other words, he put himself into a situation where this could have ended up very badly for him.   Why?  Well, he had a gun, “just in case.”    Would he have made that decision if he hadn’t been carrying a gun?  Unlikely.

Whether or not Zimmerman ever faces charges, he’s always going to be known as the man who gunned down an unarmed teenager who was doing nothing wrong.   He substituted a gun for intelligence.   The sad part?  Incidents like this were predictable.  People start carrying guns around, because they’re “afraid.”

Maybe the world is worse than it used to be. Certainly the nameless, faceless menace of the Rapist, the Home Invader, the Terrorist, the Child Molester is more terrible and present than it ever was. But even in the first of these categories, the statistics belie the image. Most people know their attackers. But the Faceless Menace is easier to fear. The Unknown is so much more frightening.

“I was afraid of him,” you say. “I was entitled to shoot. You never know what might have happened if I hadn’t.”

A “right” carries with it a responsibility.  That’s my problem with these gun laws.  They’re not “responsible.”  They’re a fear reaction, and fear causes irrational actions.   As I said earlier, I grew up around guns.  Everyone knew what a gun could do, what it meant to carry one, and why it should be treated with the utmost respect.  Because once you pull the trigger, you can’t call the bullet back.  Add a law that allows you to “defend yourself” because you felt threatened, and sooner or later someone is going to shoot someone they shouldn’t.   It’s happened before, it’s happened now, and yes, it’ll happen again.

There are many things being said about this case, and I agree with those that see a strong element of racism around this and how the police handled it.  But it was possible because people have been told they should be afraid, gun advocates have been telling people that everyone should carry a pistol everywhere “to be safe,” and pushing for laws allowing those same people to use them when they think they’re threatened.   Because of that, George Zimmerman thought he needed to carry a gun.  He  made a decision to put himself in a situation where he might use it, ignoring the emergency dispatcher’s instructions.   The result is that a young man is dead who shouldn’t be.  But that’s something the “gun rights” activists who push these laws never talk about when they’re pushing for them.   The other thing they never think of?  That it could be them who is the victim, and the same law will say that it’s excusable.  After all, they had a gun, and it was … threatening.

26 Comments

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26 responses to “Trayvon Martin and Some Thoughts on Gun Laws

  1. I live in Florida, and the conversation around here with regard to this incident has been sobering. For every person that condemns Zimmerman’s actions, there is another speculating that ” the boy” must’ve done something that “seemed threatening “, or that we can’t judge someone for “doing what he thought he had to do”.

    That lethal combination of instilled fear and leniency in our approach to obtaining and using guns is very evident around here, and it makes this a scary state in which to live. I used to get pissed off about the rotten educational system left behind by our former Governor, Jeb Bush. Now I wish that was the worst of it. His policies are leading to dumb kids and dead kids. I hope he’s proud of that legacy.

    • I lived in Washington, DC for almost 10 years. I never felt “the need” to carry a weapon, and at the time, it was known as “the murder capital of the US.” I’m also quite aware of the realities of using a gun in stressful situations, and first among them is that you’re more likely to miss what you’re shooting at than hit it.

      “doing what he thought he had to do” is a way of saying “he did it because he felt “brave” because he had a gun.” That’s why I thought from the other side – what if Trayvon had been legally armed? It’s something they should be asked.

      • That exact scenario – what if Trayvon had the gun instead of Zimmerman? – is one that I’ve wondered about and discussed with people myself. But assuming that the law would’ve protected him the same way it protected Zimmerman isn’t really taking all the factors into account in this case. Knowing the area the way I do, I’m sure that the Stand Your Ground law wasn’t even the first thing on the minds of the officers who first responded to this incident. They already had a certain familiarity with Zimmerman as a wanna-be cop, and the benefit of the doubt that they gave him was likely as attributable to that prior relationship (if not more so) as it was to the Stand Your Ground provision. If it had been anyone else, they may not have been quite as quick to send the killer home, a free man, with his fully loaded gun that same night. One thing I can tell you for damn sure: if Trayvon had been the shooter, he would have been subjected to a drug/alcohol test and a background check at the very least, and despite the Stand Your Ground law, he may well have been arrested. The fact that none of these things happened for Zimmerman may be more to do with how well the local cops knew him and empathized with him than anything else.

        • I have no doubt that you’re right about what would have happened if the shoe had been on the other foot. I just haven’t seen a lot about some of these “defenders” considering that aspect to begin with.

        • Nah…I’m not giving Sanford Police the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t know him. They saw a black “thug” in a hoodie and their own racism coupled with Zimmerman’s lying did the rest.

  2. Pingback: Today’s WTF: Jeb Bush just won’t go away « DoubleyooTeeEff

  3. desertflower

    The most common sense rationale that I have read. ANYWHERE! Living in AZ,one would think that all of us are scary, threatening people. The Wild West on steroids.I tell my kids to just think that everyone HAS a gun! How screwed up is that? Add to this, that no one that wants a gun here has to get any training in its use or safety.You want one, go buy one. Az is one of the states that ALEC/NRA slithered into and copied the FL law in.It’s so easy to do here…all those scary brown folks and all.Thank you for this, Norbrook. I will pass this around as a reminder of what responsibility and common sense looks like.

  4. Dancer

    Yet another intelligent, insightful and eloquent commentary…and, yes, a viewpoint I have NOT see expressed. We winter here in Floriduh (a name that really does have some meaning)…Many government officials have made the education system and government here beyond a joke! The fact that this law has rolled out into other states is pathetic! Unfortunately no one seems to be looking deeply into neighborhood watch programs either…there are NO criteria (as I’ve been told by the police liason for the one in our park) for selection of the people who ride around on their golf carts here “protecting” the residents (in their own minds)…this program deserves some overseeing during the conversation!

    • aquagranny911

      We have had a “neighborhood watch” program where I live for years. No one is armed with more than a cell phone. Yes, we watch for crime & graffiti but mostly we watch out for each other. We keep an eye out for our young kiddos walking to & from school. We check on our elders or anyone else who might be sick or in need. We search for lost pets. This is what we do where I live. This is part of being a community & caring for each member.

      What happened in Florida is a sickening perversion of what a real neighborhood watch program should be.

      • desertflower

        Absolutely! This is what we all should do to live in a community that we call HOME. Common sense stuff.This should be the way neighbors live harmoniously together, whether they have a neighborhood watch, or not! I think I’ll send this to all of our legislators….from both parties…they have forgotten who they work for.WE’RE the boss of them, not the other way around. Throw the NRA/ ALEC modeled bills on the mix, and the citizens are just reduced to collateral damage for their agenda. Follow the money….

  5. aquagranny911

    Stellar, Norbrook! You have reframed this in a way I had not considered. What if the shoe had been on the other foot? Or possibly worse, what if both had been armed. I try not to use swears on your blog but I said days ago somewhere else:

    Zimmerman may be a racist but he was also a fuckup with a gun & the state of Florida allowed this.

  6. desertflower

    I saw someone the other day refer to Florida as the “Gunshine State.” Perfect.

  7. You raise really good points. One point that has been muted is the absolute fear Trayvon must have felt being pursued by a white man in a pick up truck in Central Florida. Much of the debate has been around, whether Trayvon was a threat…not much about the threat of white men (present company excluded :) ) to just about, hell, everybody.

    More than likely Zimmerman got his tail kicked by Trayvon after he pushed him. Instead of SYGL it should be called the Sore Loser Law, which I think probably fits this case.

    • aquagranny911

      I think you may have nailed that! I read that Trayvon was talking to a friend on his cell & said he was scared because someone was following him.

      If he tried to defend himself from an aggressive self-important bully like Zimmerman, then that’s all that would be necessary for the asshole to shoot Trayvon in so called “self defense” under current Florida law.

      • That’s what makes the law so ridiculous. So whoever has the most deadliest weapon gets to claim self-defense it appears.

      • aquagranny911

        I have to add this. Wasn’t Trayvon shot in the back? This might indicate that he was turning away after pushing at Zimmerman because he was scared & had no idea what was happening.

        JEEZE LOWEEZ! We need Zimmerman to be charged, all evidence examined & this to be tried in a court of law.

        • They haven’t released that information that I know of but key evidence has been lost because the Sanford PD did not investigate this case. Zimmerman’s clothes are probably no longer in the condition they were in that night. They didn’t test him and I don’t think Trayvon for gunpowder residue.

          From what I’ve been able to gleen from it, Trayvon may have been on top of Zimmerman and then was shot. There is one 911 call but so far nothing definitive has come out. The police were saying that Trayvon was on top. Don’t know how much you can trust their version considering they corrected a witness who said Trayvon was screaming and tried to lead that witness into saying it was Zimmerman.

          I believe a few things though. It is likely, IMO, that the police coached Zimmerman on what to say either overtly or by leading questions and/or Zimmerman was versed at some point in the SYGL.

    • Thank you. Which is the point, in many ways. Zimmerman pushed this not just because he was an idiot (racist or not), but because he was armed. He picked the fight, not Trayvon. Over the course of my life, I’ve dealt with any number of incidents, ranging from “too loud,” drunk and disorderly, and all the way to domestic disputes. I’ve never had to brandish a gun to get things under control. Now, when I have been armed (I stood enough guard details in the military :roll: ), I tend to be more aggressive than I am when I haven’t, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better way to handle it.

      • aquagranny911

        I’ve shared this story elsewhere & I’m not sure people got the point that a gun can’t always protect you & may make you feel invulnerable.

        Some years ago, a friend of ours who was retired 30 years a Marine had two men break into his house in the middle of the night. He went down stairs & confronted them with his gun. He shot one. The other man hit him with a baseball bat, took his gun, killed him & ran away.

        I know that all the Gunny wanted to do was protect his family but it might have been more prudent for him to call 911 & stay upstairs with his family rather than confronting the intruders head on. We loved this guy and it just about broke our hearts when he was killed. We often asked ourselves “what ifs” about this. Neither of the intruders had guns but our friend still lost his life, by his own gun.

  8. good post, Norbrook
    It is thoughtful and well-written.
    This is soul-wrenching for so many Black parents
    Every time we hear a siren or see another image of a slaughtered black child, or attend yet another funeral
    we wonder: will this nightmare ever end?

  9. Self-defense, legally defined is a defense to criminal homicide, assault and battery, or crimes involving the attempted use of violence against an individual who is not the aggressor. The defense rests on the general right of a person to use reasonable force to defend him/herself from aggressors use or threat of unlawful force.

    Unlawful force is the commission or threat of commission of crime or tort. The law will generally recognize particular situations where the use of deadly force is excused or justified. Generally in Anglo-American law, one may kill an assailant when he/she reasonably believes that he/she is in imminent danger of being killed or seriously injured, and that killing the assailant is necessary in avoiding such harm. Civilized jurisdictions require that the party under attack must attempt to retreat if it can be done without increasing risk which would be the reasonable thing to do in most cases. People with guns, however aren’t known for being the most reasonable people on earth!

    The defendant may stand his/her ground in most cases unless he/she provoked the assailant purposely, or by gross negligence, or if the assailant has some incapacity, such as infancy, inebriation or mental disease. Other instances where deadly force is authorized are defense of others and defense of one’s property. An example of justified use of reasonable force may be shooting an assailant that attacked you with a knife or other deadly weapon.

    An example of unreasonable use of deadly force, in most cases could be killing an intruder or “prowler with no knowledge of the degree of the actual threat; not knowing whether the threat is armed or unarmed, etc. or killing another form of unarmed assumed threat which reflects the case in the Trayvon Martin case or even the nostalgic 1984 Bernie Goetz case in Manhattan .
    Pleas of self-defense are closely analyzed by courts to determine their legitimacy except in many mostly southern states where draconian “stand your ground” laws are in place which removes any duty by an armed citizen to retreat from danger and allows the use of deadly force if there’s a reasonable fear of death or grave harm. But as I mentioned, people that carry guns are not always the most reasonable individuals as has been seen. I, myself was involved in such a case where the plea of self-defense by an assailant to my body and person was only partially disproved and not charged with a top count of attempted murder after discharging a .45 caliber pistol at me whose bullet entered my forehead and subsequently exited the posterior of my skull trans-cranially. The circumstances surrounding the incident resonate loudly with the same issues involved in the Florida Trayvon Martin case that also demonstrate no matter how sheltered from ‘stand your ground’ laws we are locally, they can affect us all in this country wherever we are as the following case involves two Jefferson County, NY men, myself and a Watertown,NY man unfortunately crossing paths in another state with deadly results.
    To preserve the validity of this case as unbiased reference, I will only refer to myself as the victim, not,”I”, preserving, for this purpose, the analytical third person point of view.

    The case to which I am referring is Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Jay A. Pratt v Jan. 1996. The undisputed facts of the case are as follows. On the evening of Aug 13, 1994 at about 6:30 P.M, EST, The Stafford County, Virginia (911) service received a call from the residence of a Jay Allen Pratt, 33 previously of Watertown, NY reporting that a shooting had occurred. Pratt claimed he shot his stepdaughter’s boyfriend, Michael R. Jason, U.S.N., 20, of Sackets Harbor, NY once in the head. Emergency services were immediately dispatched.

    On arrival they found the victim face down in the downstairs bedroom with a gunshot wound to his head, entrance in the right forehead, exit wound in the right parietal occipital region of his head. The suspect, Jay Pratt was immediately taken into custody when he apparently waived his right to legal counsel during interrogation and made some disturbing statements Pratt reported that the two men had been drinking all afternoon. Pratt’s stepdaughter and wife were working that afternoon. The two men apparently were viewing a movie that evening and decided to order a pizza.

    The victim proceeded to the kitchen to find the phone number for the order when he reportedly noticed some phone numbers of people his girlfriend, Pratt’s stepdaughter had been seeing. He allegedly became enraged and returned to the downstairs bedroom adjacent to the living room. The victim then telephoned Pratt’s stepdaughter at her place of employment to confront her. Pratt reported that he called her and became very loud and angry with his stepdaughter over the phone.

    His stepdaughter’s statement reflected the same, reporting he was yelling at her very angrily. She claimed to have calmed him down, but he then began threatening suicide. The connection then was broken as the victim dropped the telephone. During the interrogation the suspect stated that the victim went to get the phone number and returned very upset, and then proceeded into the adjacent bedroom and called his stepdaughter.

    Pratt then stated that he heard the victim yelling and screaming on the phone. Pratt claimed that from his vantage point he could see the victim in the bedroom. He claimed that the victim was standing flush against a steel three drawer filing cabinet with the phone and one hand behind his back. He stated that he believed the victim had one of the guns that he kept unlocked in the bedroom so he got up from the chair he was sitting in and went out to his truck and took possession of a .45cal pistol, and went back into the house.

    He returned to the chair and sat down placing the gun between the cushion and the arm. The victim was still standing and on the phone at that point. Pratt then stood up with the gun at his side, and walked to the open door of the bedroom and stated, get the hell off the phone! He then reported that the victim, still standing as before described, then revealed the hand behind his back with the .38 revolver that Pratt kept loaded on his bedpost, pointing the gun at him Pratt then stated that he shot the victim.

    During the interrogation, the detectives gave the suspect a harsh third degree interrogation and insisted that he was the aggressor. The suspect responded with a pompous and sickening to me, the victim, “maybe I was!” This statement along with evidence from the crime scene brought on deep suspicion from the investigators. One key piece of evidence was the position of the victim’s body, shell casing of expended round and position of the alleged weapon that the victim’s body was out of position by almost three feet.

    The .38 cal pistol the victim was said to have had was found resting perfectly flush with the filing cabinet, barrel up, hammer in the cocked position. The detectives found certain aspects of Pratt’s story to not sit well with them The most unsettling, the shell casing position. The victim was shot through the bedroom doorway from the living room approx5-6 feet away from the victim according to Mr. Pratt. The shell casing was found in the bedroom. A Colt.45 pistol ejects the casing back and to the left. The casing could not have been ejected into the bedroom unless Pratt approached the victim directly in that room, making him the aggressor!. The hammer position of the second gun that Jay Pratt alleged the victim had in his possession was also called into question.

    If Pratt’s story is fact then the gun would have been dropped by the victim as soon as he was shot if he, in fact, had it The impact of the gun hitting the ground would have made the hammer move forward. This suggests that the gun was cocked after it was dropped or the scene fashioned to reflect Mr. Pratt’s claims and that the victim was, in fact, unarmed. It’s physical position also does not corroborate Pratt’s statement. The gun was found behind the victim resting against the cabinet.

    With the gun in the victims hand, held threateningly pointed at Mr. Pratt, arm outstretched the gun would be over five feet above the floor and at least 4.5 feet in front of the base of the filing cabinet. The commonwealth attorney took advantage of all these discrepancies during Pratt’s trial. But since there were no witnesses except Pratt, the victim’s memory of the shooting being destroyed by the trauma of the injury. Pratt’s stepdaughter refused a polygraph test. After a week long trial Pratt was convicted of one count of assault and battery, receiving a fine of $2500, no jail sentence!

    This case was to say the least unique. There were many issues exterior to the shooting that were focused on by the defense such as an unfriendly past relationship between the two men. There are many different scenarios possible, but with no solid proof or witnesses a felony conviction was not possible. One of the scenarios that the prosecution concentrated on was as follows. Pratt’s story was accurate up to the point of the actual attempted assault by the victim and alleged possession of his gun threatening him. And that possibly while on the phone the victim saw Pratt, go leave the living room and return with a gun, and maybe the victim took possession of the alleged.38 in his own defense observing Jay Pratt approach him armed with the .45. The jury still seemed to have serious concerns of his rights, because he was the owner of the home. The truth may never be known. Judgment was passed. The statute of limitation for this crime in Virginia is two years. No civil case was pursuable. It seems that Pratt and George Zimmerman, both had a lot of options and that deadly force wasn’t necessary. Pratt could of called 911 from his car cell phone instead of getting a gun before any of this had to happen. Deadly force should always be your last resort, not your first.
    Stand your ground laws allowed my assailant to ultimately take my life despite the fact that I somehow have lived through it. Both Jay Pratt in Virginia and George Zimmerman in Florida had countless other nonlethal options to have taken to preserve young people’s lives. Trayvon Martin’s or my own culpability in our particular assaults, if any, is neither here nor there & mainly beside the point. At the end of the day Trayvon was an unarmed teenager, and I, a drunk and lovesick 20 year old sailor; both victims to some states’ empowering of their citizens to have absolute discretion in perceived life or death matters where they can be wrong bearing only ultimately tragic results in most cases. And both George Zimmerman and Jay Pratt were allowed to “stand their ground” with no witnesses to corroborate the threat they perceived and barely seem to have to answer for their actions.

    note: Personal addresses and phone numbers have been edited out of this comment.

  10. Alan Scott

    Norbrook,

    What are your thoughts on the New Black Panther bounty on Zimmerman ? Why are so many people unwilling to wait until the facts all come out ? There is a mob mentality to this whole episode .

    • I think it’s reprehensible and totally unacceptable, That’s the very polite version of my opinion.

      I think what bothers me about the idea that “all the facts” haven’t come out is that it’s apparent that the police department wasn’t interested in determining the facts in the first place. The facts we do have say that Zimmerman made a decision to confront Martin, even when he was told not to.

      To me, this points to a couple of larger problems. First, the idea that just because someone is black, and wearing a hoodie, that they’re “doing something wrong.” Second, that there’s a culture of fear which is not justified by the actual data. Third, we have groups which are using that fear to push people to assume that being armed at all times will “protect them.” Just the second and third points are asking for incidents like this, and combined with the first, this is something that, as I said, has happened before, and will happen again.

  11. Alan Scott

    Norbrook,

    You do not have the facts. You assume that Zimmerman confronted Martin. That has not been definitively established. Neither has your ‘ fact ‘ that the Police Department was not interested in establishing the facts. All of that may be true, but you and I don’t ‘ know ‘ any of that.

    Zimmerman is not going anywhere. He will not get away.

    • Yes, I do have that fact that he confronted Martin, Alan. That’s from the 911 call Zimmerman made, and his stated intention to the 911 operator. It’s also verified from Zimmerman’s own statements. Secondly, that the police department was not interested in establishing the facts is borne out by their initial reactions and behavior in the immediate aftermath.