You don’t need me to tell you that the media ensuing from the fatal shooting of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin by 28 year-old George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has been filled to bursting with haggling and divisiveness over the current state of race and race-based judgments and racism and… well, race. If you did need to have a horn or a bell go off regarding that dimension, it likely sounded when Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson marched this past Saturday to Sanford police headquarters to demand the arrest of Zimmerman. I’d only like to underline one key fact during this tidal wave of race-oriented commentary: Trayvon was shot dead with a gun.
Not to diminish any other aspects of this tragic event, I just want to take a moment to point out that Zimmerman did not follow Trayvon with a hockey stick in his hands. As far as I can discern, Zimmerman wasn’t even carrying a taser or pepper spray. He had a weapon for dispatching deadly force, and when he deployed it the result was death. For me the issue in first position here, before any possible race-related motivations or what role a hoodie sweatshirt played, is that once again an American citizen is dead because another American citizen owned, carried and used a gun.
When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head by an assailant who opened fire outside a grocery store killing six people and wounding 13 others, there was a similar framing of that event with race replaced by conjecture and hand-wringing over the mental state of the assailant. During that media storm, any voice asking “How did that kid get that gun?” or “Why is it so easy for someone who appears to have mental problems to get a gun?” was mostly drowned-out by speculation about why the assailant attacked. That he was empowered to attack because he was able to get a gun was an angle that didn’t find much traction in all of the hours of coverage.
This column has consistently advocated that shootings and gun murders first be interpreted as gun events; incidents that might not have been as tragic if not for easy access to guns. But having already spoken to that, I’m thinking that we now need to consider another related problem: That the reality of events is becoming far less interesting to us than the potential drama of events. Again I mean no disrespect to those who will pursue the element of race in the Martin shooting. But can we at least first agree that there might have been no shooting without a gun in the mix?
Moving quickly off of key facts (Zimmerman had a gun) and on to the spinning of storylines is something much bigger right now because we are in an election year. We’ve moved past carping about CNN focusing on disappearances of pretty blond girls while providing virtually no reporting of same events involving young black women to a new kind of misinformation and lack of oversight in cause and effect. This inability of our national dialogue to break things down into important basics now threatens to imperil our efforts to move forward into a better 21st century for America.
Two quick examples: The national dialogue on abortion continues to be framed by the plainly incorrect assumption that legislation can end any and all of these procedures. There will never be a “ban on abortions” that ends abortion; that ban would only end safe medically administered abortions. Yet framing the issue as though legislation would have that kind of efficacy blows right past dishonest and deep into delusional, all before you even begin to detail exactly what abortion foes would have us do to women’s rights and health safety.
Men who would have us vote for them to lead our nation are currently proposing military action against Iran as a reliable means of stopping their development of a nuclear weapon. Yet as Nicholas D. Kristof pointed out in a March 25 article in the New York Times, “Anyone who is confident about what a military strike [against Iran] would bring is a fool.” In the same article Kristof cites W. Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle Eastern affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who says of military action in Iran “Unless you’re so far over on the neocon side that you’re blind to geopolitical realities, there’s an overwhelming consensus that this is a bad idea.”
But we let the dialogue in both these examples proceed as though reality just isn’t a factor. And now that the Trayvon Martin shooting has center stage, we’re not interested in talking about the singular element that brought death: The gun. Where it came from, how Florida likes guns, how Florida would rather pass ambiguous “Stand Your Ground” laws than deal with the deadly reality of armed citizens making bad decisions.
Since starting a draft of this column there has been yet another gun event, closer to home. On Monday, a gunman opened fire at an Oakland college, leaving 7 people dead. Early reporting did not mention the weapon involved or how it was obtained. If seven people had died Monday in a car accident involving a drunk driver, we’d likely have that critical detail about the drinking. In the case of guns, neglecting how a citizen becomes armed causes us to ignore the availability of deadly weapons that enable this violence. Trayvon Martin may have been the victim of racist assumptions, but he was killed with a gun.