Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Gun But No Shield

Simple Justice | 21 March 2012

The tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black youth, by white, armed, "community watcher," George Zimmerman, raises many questions, from racist perceptions, such as looking "suspicious," to the efficacy of Florida's "stand your ground" law, permitting someone to kill rather than avoid killing.

The fact that Zimmerman was roaming around with a gun, whether in search of something suspicious or just to fulfill some macho fantasy, is a problem that goes well beyond this instance. While the focus is usually on police officers who use needless force, as its more likely to be a cop than a Zimmerman who does the damage, the dark side of the legal carry crowd can't be ignored.

When Joel Rosenberg was alive, he would be the first to argue that men and women who were lawfully allowed to carry handguns, properly trained, would provide an extra hedge against crime and a calming influence on violence. If a perp feared that the person he was about to attack was armed and ready to act, he would be less inclined to take a chance. On the other hand, if a legal gun carrier happened upon a person's life being threatened, and there was no cop in sight, his gun could prove the difference between life and death. All good things.

What nobody really wanted to talk about was the Zimmerman effect. That there were people who had nothing in their background that precluded their obtaining a carry permit, who superficially appeared sufficiently sane to be allowed to possess deadly force, and relished the opportunity to do so. When Joel described the carry crowd, they were all good, solid people, more like inchoate heros than potential killers. As the t-shirt Joel sold for his licensing business said, reluctant participants.

Not every person who carries a gun is quite so modest. When they also carry a shield, there are other implications worth considering. They are trained. They are supervised. They are subject to certain scrutiny, both before they pull the trigger as well as the moment they do. This is not to say it always works out as planned, but that systems exist to theoretically keep a close watch on the use of deadly force by police.
When it comes to citizens with guns, there's some scrutiny at the outset and some scrutiny if a bullet from their gun lodges in the body of another. Between those points, no one knows they exist.

Given the circumstances of Trayvon Martin's death, and the evidence surrounding it, things aren't looking as good for George Zimmerman now as they did when the local police decided not to arrest him for the shooting. He's suddenly under the microscope, and isn't bearing out terribly well. After going through some minor criminal history, the Baltimore Sun notes that:
His father, Robert Zimmerman, told the Sentinel that George, the third of four children, is a former altar boy. And he insisted his son is not racist.
"Anybody who knows my son knows and routinely tells me that they don't believe one thing of what's reported in the media," his father said in an exclusive interview last week.
* * *
Zimmerman expressed an interest in law enforcement when he applied to the Seminole County Sheriff's Office citizens' law-enforcement academy in 2008, and has demonstrated that, although he's not a cop, he is willing to take action that resembles policing.
In 2003, records show, he pursued a 24-year-old Lake Mary man he had seen shoplift a 24-inch TV from an Albertsons supermarket, following the suspect's car until a deputy arrived. The next year, he followed a man who he claimed had spit at him while driving."
It doesn't appear that Zimmerman was a white-hooded racist. But there he was, a neighborhood watcher in a mostly white community acting out his law enforcement fantasy, with the nagging suspicion that a black teen was more likely up to no good than not. More of any ordinary white guy, inherently suspicious of blacks but not so overtly so as to make him stand out among others of his ilk. Just routine, everyday, banal feelings about race. Nothing special.

Except he had the toxic mix of being a cop wannabe, waiting for the moment when he could be a law enforcement hero, the inherent racism that most of us deny but carry around somewhere in the back of our head, and a gun.
Another neighbor, 55-year-old Frank Taaffe, defended Zimmerman as "not a racist."
Taaffe, a marketing specialist who had been a watch captain with Zimmerman until December, said he may have been "overzealous, maybe," but "his main concern is the safety and welfare of the community."
He said Zimmerman had been doing watch patrols for about a year and was a stand-up guy who was diligent but did not have a fanatical demeanor.
Curious how neighborhood watch-types adopt military rank, which could be explained as a way to effectively organize or a way to pretend they're the last defenders of their way of life. The description of Zimmerman as "overzealous, maybe," must raise eyebrows now, but didn't trouble his watch captain before. After all, when the main concern is the welfare of the community, much can be forgiven. Maybe even the killing of a black teenager.

Mistakes happen, of course, though they seem far more likely to happen with an armed white guy killing an unarmed black teen. With Zimmerman following Martin because the latter struck the former as suspicious, maybe even confronting him about what Martin was doing in Zimmerman's community, it would have carried no less racial overtones. This sort of thing happens everyday, but no one hears about it because both walk away, angry and offended, when it's over.

Not so when the neighborhood watcher has a gun and decides that this is the moment he's been waiting for, the chance to use it. Things don't always work out the way Joel hoped they would, and the guy with a gun but no shield can kill someone just as effectively, and just as wrongly.

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