There’s always the overriding sense that one is only tossing a pebble into a wildly turbulent lake when you go to weigh-in on a national drama like the Zimmerman verdict. With that caveat let me see if there’s a view of this tragedy that, with the removal of race and then the disappointment in the verdict, gets us to something more useful in terms of our immediate and long-range future.
I’ll start by talking about bar fights. Many Americans have either participated in something that might have become a bar fight, or it did become a bar fight. Or they have at least witnessed or heard a spoken word account of a bar fight. Usually what happens is that some relatively unimportant moment, such as one person glancing at another and causing a third to think there’s sexual undercurrent in play, mixes with alcohol and the energy provided by the ‘audience’ of bar patrons… and a scuffle breaks out.
Now take any event of that particular sort… and give one of the participants a loaded handgun.
Let me then add this personal anecdote, which is that as recently as four days ago I was standing on a sidewalk engaged in what was supposed to be a discussion about matters artistic and creative.
In a moment, like some digitally rendered black cloud moving at high speed, I realized that the person I was arguing with had moved from petulant irritation to rage. Take that event, and give one of the participants a loaded handgun.
If we could do a rewrite that cast Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman as just two individuals in a scuffle without even the faintest whiff of race at the heart of the argument… and then we removed the presence of a loaded handgun… we likely would have had something more like the incidents I just described; a mix-up that had no chance of ever becoming a national referendum on race.
But those were not the conditions present. These were some of the conditions present: A man – frustrated by his own inability to reshape himself as a law enforcement officer – followed an individual, arguably stalked him, with no justifiable cause except that the individual fit a disgustingly biased visual profile. The man pursuing had a loaded handgun.
I would offer that while the killing has been shaped, by media that require easy-to-carry ‘handles’ on their content, into a review of race in our nation… the killing coupled with the verdict is instead a chapter from the book we are currently writing about America’s relationship to guns.
I readily concede that you can’t just insist it was another thing other than the thing it was. But if we are to get a grip on our handgun epidemic, at some point we’re required to examine all the elements involved in shooting incidents. We’re focusing now on better tracking of individuals with medical histories of mental health issues, but I doubt even the most effective system of doing that would have snagged George Zimmerman in time.
That seems to leave us compelled to further examine exactly how the presence of a loaded gun changes any given moment of acrimonious human interaction. And I think it ultimately causes us to give-up on any argument that handguns are somehow not any different from a knife or a rock or a brick or a sharp stick. They are different. The presence of a gun in the Martin killing was not just a factor; it was the determining element.
Here in Santa Monica, we had a tragedy when an aged motor vehicle operator claimed that he accidentally could not determine the gas pedal from the brake pedal. But there are tragic events where cars are used as weapons by a driver having a fit of rage. So why aren’t cars looked at the same way we’re looking at guns in our society right now?
Because a gun has the unique ability to be deployed, lethally focused, and then utilized with nearly the same physical ease as one might pull out their cell phone and dial. And that – excuse me – convenience is what gun rights advocates are wishing on us for our future: That more Zimmerman-like killings are made possible by the freedom and right to access, buy, or otherwise obtain handguns in this country.
Readers would be right to question my repeat visits to this topic. But I would refer any questions concerning the priority of discussing access to guns in America to Trayvon Martin’s parents or anyone who has lost a child or spouse or co-worker or friend to a handgun. And I would also recommend that, for at least a moment, we take the racial angles out of the killing of Trayvon Martin killing and see what the Florida jury saw: That somehow George Zimmerman was acting within the confines of a right and even a freedom. That’s the dark portal from which my anger about the verdict pours out.