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Who’s not guilty here?

David Olmsted
Guest opinion

Some years ago, I sat on an oral board screening applicants to the law enforcement training academy. There were 35 or so candidates, mostly in their mid-20s, with at least some college. A quarter were women. Among the questions we posed was this: You’re working a night shift in a single car. A little before 2 a.m., dispatch gives you an “unwanted party” call at a downscale saloon. When you arrive, the bartender points to a big guy sitting by himself at the end of the bar. The guy is intoxicated and refusing to leave. When you approach the fellow, he snarls something derogatory about cops and says he wants one more drink. What would you do?

With one exception, each of the candidates presented a plan that involved a weapon and handcuffs. The exception was a slightly built, very attractive woman whose background included professional fashion modeling and extensive travel — in other words, life experience. After a moment of consideration she said, “Well, I would tell him that he was going to leave but that he had two choices how that was going to happen. I could call a cab so he could go home to sleep it off. Or, because he and I both knew I couldn’t physically force him out of the bar, I would go out to my car, call for backup, and when other officers arrived, we would note he was resisting arrest. After the likely scuffle, he would eventually wake up in either the drunk tank or medical unit where he’d spend the weekend.” She never mentioned her service weapon. She was hired and became an excellent police officer.

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial, much of the public reaction has centered on the role race and racial profiling might have played in the prosecution and subsequent jury verdict. Hypotheticals have been asked: How would the police and a jury have dealt with a black man who shot a white youth under similar circumstances? Would George Zimmerman have found anything suspicious about a white teenager walking through the same neighborhood? And would there be any notoriety at all if a black or Latino neighborhood-watch volunteer shot another young black or Latino man who was on his way home from a convenience store? Zimmerman’s attorneys understandably went to great effort to make race a nonissue. After successfully arguing for an instruction that explained Florida’s “stand your ground” law to the jury, they argued that the defendant’s use of lethal force was simply a textbook example of what the law was intended to allow. The six women apparently agreed and acquitted Zimmerman of all charges.

In the days since the verdict, the FBI has undertaken an investigation of whether Zimmerman’s actions constitute a racial hate crime or a violation of Trayvon Martin’s civil rights. The attorney general and President Obama have separately addressed the insidious persistence of racial prejudice in the country.

No one knows for certain whether race played any part in the death of a 17-year old kid on a soggy night in Sanford, Fla., because no one knows what George Zimmerman’s motivation to confront Martin, after a police dispatcher told him to remain in his car, was. What we do know, however, and what has somehow been lost in the discussion, is that if the watcher had no weapon that night, if everything else about the convergence of the two men’s paths was the same but for the Kel-Tec 9 mm semiautomatic pistol clipped to his belt, the confrontation would have been, at worst, a fistfight. And the more pertinent hypothetical to be asked is whether Zimmerman would have gotten out of his car to confront Trayvon Martin at all without the testosterone rush from the bulge under his jacket.

The law upon which Zimmerman’s defense was based, a law that has been adopted in some form by 31 states, allows the use of deadly force when a person believes his physical safety is threatened, even in a public space, even when the person using the deadly force provoked the confrontation and even when the provoker could walk away. Essentially, in those 31 states an armed person, such as George Zimmerman, can pick a fight with an unarmed, law-abiding person, such as Martin, and if the instigator is then getting his ass kicked, he can legally shoot the other person. The laws are the progeny of a perfidious marriage between the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. The former, of course, is in its present incarnation a lobbying shill for gun manufacturers. The latter is an amorphous amalgam of state legislators, business interests and private foundations whose stated purpose is to provide policy proposals for state legislatures. They purport to promote states’ rights and free markets. It is not a coincidence that the same 31 states also have passed expansive concealed-carry laws and collectively oppose any regulation on gun ownership.

Presumably, Zimmerman was in compliance with Florida law in carrying his weapon that night. But what was a neighborhood-watch volunteer — the operative word being “watch” — doing with a weapon of any kind? It is clear from the recorded conversation between Zimmerman and the dispatcher that the police considered the volunteer’s duty complete when he reported the suspicious party who turned out to be Martin. Yet the case is a tragic study of the specious argument the NRA makes that the only acceptable qualification to the ownership of guns is safety training. Assuming he had such training, George Zimmerman likely was proficient in the cleaning, loading and aiming of his pistol. He very well might have proven his marksmanship at the controlled and friendly confines of a shooting range. But it’s in the blurry urgency of a confrontation in a dark courtyard or a rancid bar that things can go horribly wrong when guns are involved, a caution unappreciated by the neighborhood-watch volunteer but intuited by the young police applicant.

The evolution of public policy, especially contentious public policy, often is like elephant reproduction: There is a brief — but loud — commotion followed by a long period of somnolence. For a few weeks after the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School there was a loud and tearful outcry insisting that “we” do something about the scourge of gun violence. There were emotional implorations from the families of the victims, obligatory shries from both ends of the political spectrum. There was an organized and well-funded gun control initiative by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, supported by other big-city leaders, to address the proliferation of handguns. There were modest but notable bills passed in several states, including Colorado, to address some of the seemingly common sense aspects of gun ownership, like restrictions on the size of magazines and requirements for background checks for all gun sales. In opposition there were self-serving bumper sticker homilies about good guys with guns from the gun-industry lackeys.

But soon, after the holidays had passed and our attention waned, we lost our focus, our outrage and our courage. In January, in response to proposed legislation in the Colorado Legislature, the County Sheriffs of Colorado issued a “position paper” in which they called the limited proposals a “hasty reaction” to the Aurora and Sandy Hook murders. In the paper, they included this intellectually diseased gem: “However, the Sheriffs do not believe this is the appropriate time to introduce gun control legislation because decisions will likely be made on emotions rather than reason and that is not in the interest of Colorado. It is the Sheriffs’ opinion that all gun control bills be tabled for at least a year to encourage rational deliberations before any decisions are made.”

It is unclear whether the year-long moratorium on common sense would reset on the occasion of the next tragedy that will, inexorably, come. It was also a delay that several county sheriffs, including Joe DiSalvo, and the Colorado Chiefs of Police opposed.

Let the examination of racial prejudice in America continue. But recognize that it was both George Zimmerman and the gun that senselessly killed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman has been acquitted of the crime. We should not let the pointless proliferation of guns off so easily.


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