America's Unchecked Gun Culture Killed Trayvon Martin

As the investigation into what happened on February 26 continues, it appears increasingly more likely that Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman, was the one exercising his rights under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. On CNN, Martin’s mom declared as much, saying, “My son was exercising his stand your ground rule.” Except, of course, 17-year-old Martin did not possess the single crucial element for standing one’s ground in the United States: A gun. Florida law restricts concealed handguns to those 21 and older. Instead the teen had a bag of Skittles.

This will happen again, probably soon, but not because of race relations or hoodies; because of guns and a nation’s increasing obsession with arming itself against all reason. And what is a nation armed to the teeth supposed to do once it has spent billions of dollars and countless political capital to be so locked and loaded? Sit on the couch and watch “Dancing with the Stars”? Hell no.

When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is a gun everything looks like an imminent, violent threat. The failure of Martin’s death is not necessarily one of race relations, it’s one of gun relations.

Trayvon Martin’s case has become a special sensation, but it’s hardly unique. Martin’s death mirrors a recent Wisconsin shooting involving a young black man named Bo Morrison in a town called Slinger.

Morrison, 20, fearing an underage drinking charge, had fled a nearby house party when police arrived and hid on a neighbor’s porch. It just so happened that that porch was owned by a man that had called the police about the loud party. When the man heard a noise on his porch, instead of calling the police back, he armed himself with a handgun and went into the dark to investigate. Moments later, he shot into the dark porch, killing the unarmed Morrison who, by police reports, appears to have been standing up and raising his arms. Citing Wisconsin’s new Castle Doctrine law, the Slinger man was found to not have committed a crime. (Though, as the shooter’s attorney argued, he would likely have a case based on Wisconsin’s old law as well.)

What these cases have in common is not race, but guns, and the new laws that promote firearms as a first solution. In both cases, the shooters had recently spoken to the authorities, were in no immediate danger, and could have redialed 911 and waited, with their handguns drawn if they so liked. Instead, they moved themselves into harm’s way only to later hide behind laws meant to protect those who found themselves in harm’s way by no action of their own.

The national debate over these shootings is something America had just four years ago, when a Texas man shot two men he saw burglarizing his neighbor’s house. In that case, a man was advised to back off by 911, inserted himself into the crime and fired. Cleared on Stand Your Ground reasoning, the Horn shooting also devolved into a debate about race as the burglars were Hispanic.

In an effort to distance the shoot-first movement from negative associations, some gun advocates have taken the position that George Zimmerman was, in fact, wrong, and he doesn’t represent responsible gun carriers. Some have even called for him to be charged, reasoning that because of his aggression toward Martin, stand your ground doesn’t apply, that Zimmerman’s is a uncharacteristic case. But data from the Violence Policy Center suggest the Zimmerman shooting is prototypical.

While it can rightfully be characterized as biased and “anti-gun,” the organization’s data still cannot be ignored. Covering 290 shooter incidents involving conceal-carry licenses since 2007, the center found that 83 were convicted of homicide and of the 58 cases still pending, 48 had been charged with criminal homicide.

But even by its own admittance, the Violence Policy Center’s data is incomplete. And because there are no comprehensive statistics, Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws are often defended with real-life anecdotes.

For example, on a lark, I wrote a letter to Combat Handguns magazine for its “It Happened to Me” section. It was a common tale of successful gun use. Titled “Out the Window,” the letter was published—alongside four similar tales—in the Aug. 2011 issue under the initials “JH” from North Dakota. I mentioned “doo rags,” my girlfriend’s safety, and my Glock, all the details of the most lobotomized self-defense anecdote. The editor never questioned its authenticity, even though the letter noted that 911 had been called, a detail easy to corroborate. (Harris Publishing did not respond to requests for comment.)

The point being, the gun use anecdote, without a police report, should be treated as highly suspect at best.

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Combat Handguns has a circulation downrange of 130,00, about the same as Guns Magazine. Guns and Ammo reaches 575,000. American Rifleman, 1.6 million. As readers flee most magazines, gun publications are flourishing—thanks in part to an increasingly hard-line editorial direction. The 12-year-old NRA title America’s 1st Freedom recently saw a single-year growth of 23 percent to a circulation north of 600,000. Since Obama’s election, gun-focused magazines have landed on the list of the 25 fastest-growing titles. Visit any supermarket magazine rack in flyover country and a quarter to a third of it will be dedicated to gun magazines.

Despite the abandonment of the gun-control debate, gun sales are booming since Obama took office. Sturm Ruger & Co. recently halted new orders, citing an inability to meet surging sales. The company’s stock jumped 7.8 percent. The president’s inaction on gun control has only led many—including the NRA—to suspect he’s concocting a super secret gun control master plan. It’s a paranoid delusion, one that should maybe preclude a person from owning a gun under mental-health provisions.

And instead of smoothing sales, the decrease in violent crime has been used to buttress the more-guns position. Florida gun supporters attribute the crime drop to its liberal you-can-shoot-people laws. But those same decreases have happened in Wisconsin, even though the state’s concealed carry and castle doctrine laws did not take effect until the last few months.

Even after a member of Congress was shot in the face by a man wielding a Glock with a 33-shell capacity, lawmakers could not get any traction to even begin to talk about what could possibly be the reasonable need for such high-capacity magazines. Instead, the arguments move in the other direction. The hottest front in gun rights? “Silencers are Legal,” a campaign by brand Silencero that informs gun owners that “Yes, silencers are legal in beautiful, constitution-upholding states.” It argues that silencers save hearing, are better for accuracy and “increase situational awareness.” Silencero lobbyists worked in Arizona to advance the “suppressor bill”—on the way to the governor—and it’s hosting the first annual “Silencers are Legal Shoot” in Dallas on April 28.

As much as many in its community may detest it, Hollywood has aided and abetted the explosion of gun culture in ever way. The Internet Movie Firearm Database is a hot property. Angelina Jolie’s live-firing Glock from the film Salt fetched $3,200 at auction. Terry Crews, the automatic-shotgun-toting star of the kill-em-all flick The Expendables, joined in a Trayvon Martin tribute sing-a-long.

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People don’t kill people, people emboldened by laws they don’t fully understand kill people. Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws alone are not the direct instigators of shootings such as the Martin and Morrison deaths. Instead, they are just road maps for dumb gun owners looking for a fight.

Most scenarios that require a gun as a solution are messy, fast affairs where the kind of thoughtful reasoning taught in concealed carry permit classes is an unaffordable luxury. A stand your ground law encourages those with guns, but often little if any training, to act instead of flee. By letter these may be called “stand your ground” laws, but in practice they operate as enforce your ground laws because, simply, the smart people who write and lobby for the laws are not the dopes who come to carry the guns with an understanding they now have an absolute right to use them.

This in a paranoid modern American seduced by the increasingly popular idea of arming oneself to… do something. Incidentally, as the blog The Truth About Guns points out, authorities in the Trayvon Martin shooting found the magazine of George Zimmerman’s gun was full. This means “Zimmerman loaded the gun, racked the slide to put a round in the chamber (reducing the number of bullets in the magazine by one), removed the magazine, put another round in the magazine, then replaced the magazine in the gun.” In simpler terms, Zimmerman went through the trouble of chambering a shell and then reloading the magazine to full so that the gun would be ready to fire immediately, plus have an extra round. It’s speculative, but had Zimmerman needed to “rack the slide” or chamber a shell in that final scuffle with Martin that Zimmerman is claiming happened, it may not have been so easy to get off the deadly shot. For this very reason, carrying an already-chambered handgun is a point of debate within the conceal-carry community.

When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels recently signed an NRA-backed “stand your ground against police” law—a law that, unsurprisingly, was unpopular among police officers—Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David predicted such a law “unnecessarily escalates the level of violence.” The law itself just stated that police officers acting illegally had no right to enter a home, but what a lot of gun owners likely heard was that the authority of police is subjective.

If the conversation about the Trayvon Martin case continues to be mainly about race, the NRA and pro-gun advocates will be the true victors. Let the sides argue endlessly about the hopeless subjects of racial profiling, hoodies and what’s to be done about young black men who insist on walking around the world buying candy. (Answer: More guns!) Just so long as the argument is not about how an increasingly armed and emboldened society is inevitably only going to experience more and more of these incidents. Rise, repeat, rearm.

As for Zimmerman, the facts are ominous. The Violence Policy Center’s data show that of those nearly 300 cases of deaths involving concealed carry permit holders, a full 134 were suicides.


Abe Sauer is the author of the book How to be: North Dakota. He is on Twitter and has his concealed carry license. Email him at abesauer @ gmail.com.