In Sanford, Fla., an African-American teenager in a hoodie and a self-appointed neighborhood guardian with a gun clashed on a dark night in late February. Trayvon Martin, 17, lay dead. George Zimmerman, 28, a former altar boy of white and Hispanic origin and a criminal justice major at Seminole State College, had pulled the trigger. Mr. Zimmerman had followed Mr. Martin, against the advice of a 911 operator. Over the last 14 months he had called police 46 times to report problems and suspicions in his gated community. Mr. Zimmerman has twice been accused of violence or criminal misconduct; but he has a concealed weapons permit and remains at large because Florida, like 23 other states, maintains a “stand your ground” statute that allows individuals to use deadly force if they have a “reasonable fear” of harm.
Mr. Martin, 6 feet 4 inches tall but weighing only 140 pounds, earned extra money washing cars. He babysat for his younger cousins. His offense that night was to be a black youth delivering a bag of Skittles to his soon-to-be step-brother. The Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson described the tragedy best: Mr. Martin may have been killed because of “the bull’s eye that black men wear throughout their lives” and for failing to obey “the vital imperative to never, ever be caught on the wrong street at the wrong time.”
Mr. Martin’s death has sounded a national wake-up call regarding the still imperfect status of race relations in the United States, but it also calls for an examination of a decades-long retreat from rational gun control. A brief period of legislative progress for gun control in the 1980s following the shooting of President Ronald Reagan was met by a counteroffensive from U.S. gun lobbies, principally the National Rifle Association, that continues to this day. Legislators and citizens who should have known better wearied of the struggle to better regulate America’s “militias,” thinking perhaps that gun-rights advocates would eventually be satisfied with various incremental victories against gun controls. But instead, each extension of gun-use rights has only provoked hunger for more.
What has been the effect of this unilateral cease-fire? Pro-gun rationalizations that used to be dismissed as parody have moved into the mainstream. Events at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, the shootings in Tucson that left Gabrielle Gifford gravely wounded and other deadly incidents should have driven the nation toward more rational gun restrictions, but America has gone the other way and seems closer to a gun-happy dystopia than ever before.
Thirty-six states have relaxed restrictions for concealed weapons permits under so-called “shall issue” procedures. Four states require no registration of handguns at all. Other states have severely curtailed common sense restrictions on where handguns may be carried. Now Second Amendment enthusiasts carry guns into shopping malls, bars, college campuses, restaurants, even churches. On March 21 Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels signed legislation that allows citizens to use deadly force against the police if they perceive police actions to be unlawful. This has created an entirely new arena for unintended, mortal collisions between police and the public.
In 2005 Florida became the first state to expand broadly the right to use deadly force for self-defense, obliterating the “duty to retreat” from threats in public places. In this new situation, once self-defense has been invoked, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove the claim. “Stand” laws have led to the multiplication of cases in which gang leaders, drug dealers and bar-room pugilists have killed those who have provoked them and gone free. Justifiable- homicide claims in Florida have more than tripled since the law was passed.
The incident in Sanford raises questions about race, ethnicity, neighborhood tensions and violence in U.S. culture. A common factor in these issues is the failure of politicians to stand up to the N.R.A. and insist that the safety of the nation’s young people, for example, has a higher priority than a gun-toter’s absolutized version of Second Amendment freedom. Trayvon Martin paid the ultimate price for the public’s declining interest in responsible limitations on gun ownership.
Even if Mr. Zimmerman is prosecuted, gun worship will remain. The Martin tragedy has not discouraged the N.R.A.’s current press for a national right-to-carry reciprocity bill that would nationalize concealed-carry permits. Only a national law that restricts who can own a gun or carry a concealed weapon and limits where guns may be kept can confront this crisis. Rational gun control might save the lives of future Trayvon Martins of every race and age entitled to walk city streets; but it will require courageous civic leaders who really value human life and will stand their ground against the N.R.A.