Sunday, July 14, 2013

On Trayvon: Guns, Race and Fear in America

What is the real take-away from the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the sidewalk slaying of Florida teen, Trayvon Martin?

The case, at first glance, appears to reside squarely on the obvious fault-lines of race, guns and the law that shamefully, America still doesn't have much of a handle on.

There has been no shortage of commentary following yesterday's verdict. But the "it's now open season on Black boys" school of analysis reeks of a histrionic drama that just seems unlikely, while those who celebrate the acquittal as a victory for freedom and the rule of law seem only too anxious to dodge the broader questions that simply ought not to be dodged once they are planted so plainly in one's face.

Let's get the easy part out of the way. George Zimmerman is walking because the law of Florida apparently says he should walk. That's what the jury found.

I will resist the temptation to delve into interpreting the niceties of the criminal law of Florida, a jurisdiction with which I have no professional familiarity. I note, however, that most credible legal commentators had viewed this prosecution as an uphill battle from the outset.

So while critiquing everything from the performance of counsel at trial to the demeanour of the presiding judge, the quality of various jury instructions and the demography of the jury itself has been fodder for cable news and armchair legal quarterbacks alike, I suggest that is a bit of a fool's game at this point. 

Let's assume that the verdict was the correct one from a strictly legalistic standpoint that considers only whether the law, as written, was properly applied.

This is of course not a moral assessment, and this discussion can't rightfully end with the law itself. 

From any moral vantage point, it is clear that this verdict, as predictable as it may have been, is an outrage. Bad laws produce bad outcomes, and any system of laws that renders no legal consequences for the profiling, stalking and shooting of an unarmed Skittle-carrying teenager by a self-appointed citizen-enforcer must be an ass.

At the end of the day, this case is about the fear that has overtaken much of the American psyche.  Most problematically, it is a fear that has been warmly embraced by legislators and jurists, alike, with security of the person, personal privacy, data security, habeas rights, and in Florida, life itself being among the most blatant casualties.

It is fear that is behind the weakening of gun controls in the red states. It is fear that underlies the endemic racial tensions in America.  And it is fear that produces the kind of criminal laws that allow the George Zimmermans of America to walk free, leaving a senseless wake of blood and tears behind them. 

Let's not succumb to the temptation to treat the Zimmerman acquittal simply as a case of a trial gone wrong. It was not. It was a case of the law gone wrong. 

Regrettably, these sorts of laws have acquired serious currency in America, and do not lack for popular support. As the last holdout states scramble to enact liberalized conceal-carry laws, the prevalence of guns on the streets, in taverns, at protests and in legislatures themselves can only increase, as will the number of ill-considered opportunities to use them. Contemporaneously, "stand your ground" laws that shift the burden of proving self-defence away from the accused make acquittals probable in shootings where no independent eyewitnesses are available or willing.

In certain corners of America, the public views the carrying of private firearms as an inalienable constitutional right.  That sub-section of America is not without supporters on the nation's Supreme Court.  Such citizens sit as legislators and congressional leaders and as jurists and jurors.  They are lobbyists and voters and church-goers and disproportionately white

And they are afraid - afraid of criminals, afraid of their governments, afraid of terrorists under every rock, and most of all, afraid of the generic "other."  Especially if the "other" bears any of a number of racial profiles that are not white and local and familiar.  

From their perspective, George Zimmerman made the right call - perhaps even the only available call.  Better safe than sorry. Better "the other guy than me."  

To that constituency, it is irrelevant whether the decisions George Zimmerman made to get himself into his predicament were sound. And it is equally irrelevant whether those decisions were fatefully emboldened by Zimmerman's confidence in the protection provided by the legal firearm he was carrying. 

We can now conclude that the law told Zimmerman that the second he felt serious fear of death or injury, he would be justified in pulling out his 9mm handgun - and be justified in using it, exactly as he did. In certain corners of America, this is seen as a good thing.

That is the real dilemma America faces.  Particularly in cases like this, where the offence itself was most assuredly not colour-blind.

While it may make the NRA smile to see the market for gun manufacturers expanding so promisingly, the reality is that permissive gun laws simply make it easier for good guys and bad guys and in-the-middle guys to acquire more and more guns.  Guns for the sober, guns for the drunk; guns for the many of every colour and creed. Guns for all, and the more guns the merrier.

Those guns will be used.  Sometimes the Zimmermans will wind up dead. Sometimes it will be the Trayvons. And, in certain jurisdictions, in the absence of eyewitnesses, there will be similarly appalling acquittals.  

There will always be fear. And there may always be guns.

But only the gullible will believe this new gun-happy America will make them safe.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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