Can Trayvon Martin’s Death Alter Our Race and Gun Cultures?

On a number of levels, it makes sense that Florida is the site of the Trayvon Martin tragedy that’s riveting the nation. Florida purports to be our new multi-racial, multi-ethnic social model, a showcase of early 21st-century America; yet the case of Martin’s fatal February shooting, which emits at least a strong odor of anti-black bias, seems to point up just how lodged in the early-20th century South much of the state can still be. Florida advertises itself as a cheerful, laid-back beach peninsula; yet its residents consistently rank among the country’s rudest drivers and gloomiest people, which makes it less surprising that seven years ago the state pioneered the hair-trigger “stand your ground” law that’s at the heart of the Martin controversy.

One of the silver linings of the Martin case — in which an African-American 17-year-old, apparently doing nothing more menacing than walking home from a convenience store, was shot and killed the night of Feb. 26 by an overzealous neighborhood crime-watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., who thought the boy looked “suspicious” — is that it might help shake Florida, if not the country it so typifies today, out of its denial. The massive demonstrations in Sanford calling for the arrest of the shooter, George Zimmerman, and for the resignation of the local police chief who refused to charge him; the high school walkouts by Florida teens protesting the killing of yet another young black man; President Obama’s poignant remark today that if he had a son “he’d look like Trayvon” — it’s all helped move state authorities to convene a special grand jury and Florida Governor Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the incident.

Just as important, Scott, a conservative Republican, deserves credit for forming a task force, headed by his lieutenant governor and a prominent black Tallahassee minister, to review Florida’s stand-your-ground law — known sardonically as the “shoot first” law. The 2005 statute lets anyone, anywhere use deadly force against another person if they believe, as Zimmerman questionably claimed, that their life or safety is in danger. More than 20 other states have adopted similar laws.

If that task force’s findings lead to the eventual repeal of stand-your-ground in Florida and other states, then Martin’s death will have served a purpose greater than just the cancellation of a lawless law. It will have helped to put a brake on the runaway train that is America’s gun culture. The U.S. gun lobby is expert at pushing the outside of the statutory envelope; but stand-your-ground represented a historic rupture of that limit, a break with centuries of British and American common law that confined the deadly force response to violent invasions of one’s home — known as the “castle doctrine” — and required citizens to walk away from perilous situations outside that domain.

Just as a 911 dispatcher instructed Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, to do the night he shot Martin. In fact, according to audio of other neighbors’ calls to 911 that night, and the later testimony of a girlfriend Martin was talking to on his cellphone just before the shooting, Martin was probably the one who felt more threatened when Zimmerman approached him and an altercation ensued. But what happened that evening outside Orlando seems largely the result of a deadly Sunshine State cocktail: Florida has some of the nation’s most lenient gun laws, which let even Barney Fife vigilantes like Zimmerman, 28, who has a history of run-ins with the law, carry around firearms like the 9-mm pistol that killed Martin. And, at least since 2005, it has encouraged a Wild West stand-your-ground mindset that makes it easier for hotheads to justify doing the unjustifiable in every situation from bar fights to road rage incidents to neighborhood crime watch.

The moment of national introspection we’re having over Martin’s death is especially important given the nation’s current armed mood, which experts attribute in no small part to the Great Recession. Just before the financial meltdown, in 2007, a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans still favored stricter gun laws and a reinstatement of the assault weapon ban that former George W. Bush let expire in 2004. The latest Gallup survey, however — despite the shock of last year’s shooting in Arizona that nearly killed U.S. Representative Gabrielle Gifford and did kill six other people — showed the country more pro-gun than ever: only 43% now favor tougher laws, while 57% oppose an assault weapon ban.

The National Rifle Association points out that U.S. gun-related murders have actually dropped from more than 18,000 in 1993 to fewer than 9,000 in 2010, insisting that a more armed population doesn’t necessarily mean a deadlier one. But there’s a difference between having more guns and having reckless laws like stand your ground that give people ever more opportunities — if not a feeling of carte blanche — to use those weapons.

Dennis Baxley, one of the Florida state representatives who co-authored stand-your-ground — and who also was one of the GOP pols who insisted in 2008 that Obama’s “Muslim” background made him a “pretty scary” presidential candidate (Obama is a Christian) — is insisting now that his law, while he admits it was poorly applied in Martin’s case, still “empowers people to stop bad things from happening.” But Martin’s death, and the fact that claims of justifiable homicide have tripled in Florida since the law was enacted, simply indicate that it has all too often emboldened people to make bad things happen. And that’s where the shock of the Martin shooting is likely to prove most useful.

That, and our shameful national scapegoating of young black men, especially when they’re wearing hooded sweatshirts, as Martin was on Feb. 26 to cover himself from the rain. Here in Florida, where recent headlines remind us that police in cities like Miami are still too willing to open fire on African-American males in situations where they likely wouldn’t shoot white men, there is a palpable feeling that the Martin case may finally make everyone from law enforcement to housewives realize how wrong this communal reflex is. As Congresswoman Frederica Wilson told the House this week, she and other black leaders are “tired of burying black boys” in the U.S. Then again, we’ve thought that after numerous incidents in the past.

At the same time, however, we should channel some of our collective outrage toward changing the sad fact that most young black men are murdered not by Zimmermans but by other young black men. In Philadelphia last year, for example, 75% of the homicide victims were African-American men — as were 80% of their murderers, a reminder that black-on-black violence is more prevalent than racially-charged violence.

But either way, the entire country, not just its first black President, should start imagining Trayvon Martin as one of our sons. The entire country should be tired of “burying black boys.” Just as we should be weary of the escalating impulse not just to carry more guns but to let people fire them as indiscriminately as laws like stand your ground permit them to. That urge started in Florida, so it makes sense now that it might just end there too.

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