When Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman approached a young man he had never spotted in the area before, little did he realize the events that were about to unfold would potentially ruin his life and end another. By now, we all know the details of what played out on that February night that led Zimmerman, allegedly in self-defense, to shoot an unarmed, but allegedly attacking, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Or do we?
Since the story made news, it has taken on a life of its own, with people from every corner of our society weighing in through protests, message boards, blogs, radio shows, social media and around office water coolers. At first blush, according to news reports, the case looked like a cut-and-dry case of an overeager citizen taking the law, perhaps mistakenly, into his own hands and shooting a teenager carrying nothing more than a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
The case was shocking not merely for the crime itself, but because the police didn't even arrest Zimmerman, who in claiming self-defense, and supported by their investigation to that point, was protected by the state's Stand Your Ground laws. Those laws say citizens don't have to retreat in the event of an attack, but are within their rights to defend themselves with deadly force when necessary -- a philosophy few gun owners and self-reliant individuals would argue with. However, much of the public seemed incredulous, and rightfully so, if what the news reported was indeed fact.
Fanning the flames of public outrage was the fact that young Trayvon was black and Mr. Zimmerman was Hispanic -- half Hispanic and half white, to be specific. As such, the debate quickly rotated on the axle of race, and just as quickly drew all the usual players, including Al Sharpton, who has cleverly positioned himself as the most vocal voice of indignation over the shooting. Right behind him has been the ever-present Jesse Jackson, who has wrestled somewhat clumsily throughout his life to carry the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy since standing beside the fallen hero on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on that epically tragic day in 1968. Even film director Spike Lee jumped head first into the headlines, only to land in the shallow end of the pool. He had to offer a sheepish public apology after he tweeted the wrong address in trying to tell the public where Zimmerman lived. One can only surmise what Lee hoped to incite by his actions. But the story is far from done -- and for gun owners, it may just be the beginning.
Since the Martin story soared to the top spot on most national news programs, other facts have come to light. Facts that at least suggest maybe the public shouldn't be so quick to judge, and that we should allow the judicial system, both investigative and prosecutorial avenues, to work as it is designed. Witnesses have stepped forward to say it was indeed Martin attacking Zimmerman and getting the better of him, too, before the armed citizen resorted to gunfire.
At the same time, the public veneer of Martin as a happy-go-lucky, Skittles-eating innocent child is beginning to peel away under blogger scrutiny -- the mainstream media has had less to report on this. Martin was staying with his father's fiancee in the unfamiliar neighborhood because he had been suspended from school for 10 days after marijuana residue was found in a bag he was carrying. It was his third suspension, the other two being for other reasons. On a now deleted Facebook profile, young Martin also appeared to celebrate and emulate the gangster lifestyle, complete with photos of tattoos and a gold grill on his teeth. To be sure, that certainly doesn't mean he deserved to be shot or even accosted by Zimmerman. Plenty of teenagers -- black, white and Hispanic -- identify with the tougher, rougher elements of their peers in an effort to be cool and stand out, and generally to the disapproval of their parents. What it does suggest, however, is how a young black man might have taken an affront at being hassled by an older man of another color when he was minding his own business and how things could have spun horrifically out of control in the ensuing argument.
Comedian Bill Cosby, who like most men growing older seem to become more serious with time, waded into the fray last week suggesting that the Trayvon Martin case isn't about race, but rather gun ownership and the need to limit that ownership.
"When a person has a gun, sometimes their mind clicks that this thing is, will win arguments, will straighten people out," Cosby told CNN. Cosby, who admitted to once owning a firearm, but says he doesn't own one now, has an understandable sensitivity to the issue. His son, Ennis, was shot to death during a robbery attempt in 1997 after his car broke down along a California highway. Cosby agrees people should be able to protect themselves in their homes, but suggested once they go out into the neighborhood, they shouldn't be carrying guns, despite the fact many citizens face greater danger out and about than they do in their own homes.
Cosby's remarks were ultimately only half right. He's correct when he says this case shouldn't be about race. But this case isn't about gun ownership run amok either.
Florida, with the help of the NRA, has led the way to pass firearm-friendly legislation designed to improve individual and community safety, protect the freedoms of recreational and competitive shooters, and enforce responsible gun ownership and safety. Many states have followed the Sunshine State's lead, and the wave of laws that have been successfully approved over the last decade have overwhelmingly passed muster.
Despite more and more Americans buying and owning firearms, the random shootings and violence naysayers feared was inevitable with the passage of these laws hasn't occurred. In fact, according to The Associated Press, when accounting for the increase in the country's population, numbers of justified homicides have actually decreased. At the same time, the national violent crime rate has also decreased, something many gun owners suggest may just be because the bad guys no longer know when they will be outgunned by an intended victim.
The NRA (an organization this writer once worked for) hasn't taken a position or released any statements regarding the Martin case, other than those spoken by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre at last week's NRA Annual Convention, when he accused the media of sensationalizing the issue. A call requesting their thoughts on how the case might impact gun laws in this country was not returned.
Yet, in typical reactionary fashion, some legislators have already dashed to their capitols to reverse laws that support Stand Your Ground and right-to-carry doctrine. In Florida, a special task force has already been selected to review the very law that allowed Zimmerman to avoid arrest immediately following the shooting. (He has since been charged with second-degree murder after a special prosecutor was appointed to the case.) In Georgia, Rep. Rashad Taylor has already proposed legislation that would repeal a similar self-defense law his state passed based off Florida's model. And you can bet there will be more.
As Americans all seeking a safer, freer and more prosperous country, we should welcome healthy debate and work to develop laws that serve the greatest good of our communities. As gun owners, we need to be informed, articulate and involved in those discussions that will impact our firearms freedoms, so that good laws that support public safety aren't tossed out of reactionary ignorance and emotion.
How do you think the Trayvon Martin case has impacted our society and its view on guns?