Thoughts on Trayvon Martin and the Tragedy of Gun Culture

TrayvonThis boy did not have to die, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

Trayvon Martin is dead, and the man who shot him has been cleared of any wrongdoing in his death.  In the aftermath of this heartbreaking and infuriating decision, it is difficult to find the appropriate target on which to focus the outrage over the injustice in letting a killer go free.

Of course, the most obvious target is George Zimmerman, the confessed shooter who followed an innocent teenage boy, engaged him and then shot him after a physical altercation.  The questions raised by his actions are numerous.  Did he target Trayvon just because of his race? Why did he keep following Trayvon after the police told him not to?  Why did Zimmerman get out of his car to confront him?  Why did he need to have a gun?  There are so many questions, but in the end, they may not matter as much as the question raised by the Florida legal system:  Why is it okay to kill a black kid for no reason?

(As an aside, I find it interesting how the two principles are addressed by the media and other followers of this case.  Trayvon Martin is almost universally called by his first name, while George Zimmerman is almost always identified by his surname.  To me, this reflects a sense of familiarity to the former; Trayvon was a kid, just like kids we all know.  He walked to the store, bought candy and a drink, called a friend on the phone, and put up his hood against the chill of a rainy night.  He got scared by a man following him and when confronted, he defended himself.  None of this is unusual behavior.  Any of us would have reacted the same way.  And, as much as we all know someone like Trayvon, Zimmerman seems foreign to us.  He saw a black youth walking through a neighborhood that was supposed to be safe and instantly saw him as a threat.  His unfounded suspicions led him to follow the teenager, call the police and then continue to follow him against their orders.  He exited his car, carrying a gun, to confront a kid doing nothing more than walking home.  And then, when the confrontation turned physical, he used his gun to shoot and kill him.  This behavior doesn’t make any sense to most people, hence the non-familiar use of his last name.

Of course, looking at it from a different perspective, it could be an issue of respect.  A young black kid who smoked pot and took pictures where he looked like a “thug” may not demand the same level of respect as an upstanding police academy reject with a white-sounding name who took it upon himself to protect his community from the menace of black teenagers.  This view is obviously bullshit, but it would not be surprising from a gun culture that loves to differentiate between “good guys” and “bad guys.”)

But, as much anger as I have toward George Zimmerman, he is not the only perpetrator of this terrible crime.  Equally responsible are the culture that led him to carry a gun in the first place, the laws that emboldened him to pull the trigger, and the court that absolved him from any wrongdoing.

Gun advocates, with their hyperbolic rhetoric, have created an environment where their supporters see a threat around every corner and in every home.  Despite decreasing crime rates, fear is escalating.  Homeowners are told that guns are the only way to protect their homes from killers and thieves.  Women are told that only a gun will prevent them from being sexually assaulted.  According to this skewed worldview, the police cannot be counted on for protection.  Only if everyone carries a gun can anyone be truly safe.  And escalating profits for gun manufacturers and proposals encouraging increased gun ownership show that this rhetoric is working.

On its face, a law that allows someone to protect himself from an attacker may make sense.  But, what Zimmerman did was not self-defense.  His act was one of aggression.  He pursued his target, first in his car and then on foot.  He caused the situation that resulted in a dead young man.  And, while it may be possible that he did not intend to kill Trayvon, but rather hoped to chase him away, the fact remains that Zimmerman’s actions directly led to his death.  He must bear responsibility for that.

According to the jury’s interpretation of Florida’s laws, George Zimmerman was not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  That does not mean he is not actually responsible.  It just means that the law is severely flawed.  Any law that protects the aggressor rather than the victim, a gun owner instead of an unarmed teenager, and a white (or, at least, not black) man over a black man is a law that has no place in a just society.  But, the fact that the acquittal of a confessed killer can be seen as a victory in some circles shows that our society is far from just.  And, that this victory can even be celebrated by some shows just how far off track we have gotten.  There should be no joy in the death of an innocent boy, regardless of his race, age, or the circumstances surrounding his shooting.  Any death is a tragedy, but especially one that could have been so easily avoided.  Placing the value of gun ownership above that of a human life is unfathomable, yet that is exactly what has happened in the minds of those who favor the laws that allowed this travesty of justice to happen.

There are many fingers to be pointed in this tragedy.  There is a killer and a gun culture that provoked his behavior and a legal system that enabled it.  They are all to blame.  Zimmerman may have escaped punishment, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over.  Unjust laws must be repealed and new, just ones must be enacted.  Rationalism must trump fear so that people don’t feel compelled to own and use guns against imagined threats.  Trayvon Martin’s life has ended, but the movement to prevent things like this from happening again is just beginning.