My brother forwarded me this article from Headline News’s obsessive coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, in which Zimmerman’s friend Mark Osterman explains how he convinced Zimmerman to buy a gun. Quote:
He asked whether he should or shouldn’t—to start with—and I recommended that he should. Anybody who’s a non-convicted felon should carry a firearm. The police aren’t always there.
Dear friends: when I am on trial for murder, please do not describe me as a “non-convicted felon.” Also, great advice on the gun thing, Mark.
By most accounts, the Zimmerman trial is going badly. “Badly” is a matter of perspective, of course, based on an ipso-facto approach to the situation. Zimmerman is an adult, and Trayvon Martin was a child; Zimmerman was acting in his self-appointed capacity as a neighborhood watchman, and Martin was buying Skittles; Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin after police told him not to, and Zimmerman had a gun when Martin did not. Now Martin is dead, and Zimmerman is on trial for second-degree murder.
The prosecution’s decision to charge him with murder and not manslaughter is part of the reason the last few days of the trial have focused on minutiae. The murder charge requires the prosecution to prove malicious intent, and so Zimmerman’s remarks before he pursued Martin—“these fucking punks always get away”—and other clues to his mindset have become matters of intense scrutiny. These are important issues in a criminal trial, but in the midst of hourly coverage, they tend to obscure the larger iniquity of an armed adult following and then killing an unarmed child.
Which brings us to that gun every non-convicted felon should carry. Had Zimmerman not armed himself, he almost certainly would not be on trial for murder right now. Zimmerman himself insists that he only shot Martin because the teenager was reaching for his gun as they fought. Even allowing for the fitness and energy of an adolescent, the man outweighed the boy by 30 pounds. Had he been carrying a can of pepper spray instead of a pistol, his worst-case scenario would be an assault charge right now, and/or a lost fight.
Getting beaten up is terrifying and awful. It shouldn’t happen to anybody, even people who seek out and confront the people who beat them. It’s hard to argue that Trayvon Martin getting killed is a more desirable outcome than George Zimmerman losing a fight, though. The problem with the gun as an instrument of self-defense is that it offers very few midpoints between threat and deadly force.
If you’re trying to keep someone from tackling you, pointing a gun at them is pretty much the most reliable way to do it. Once someone has tackled you, though—for instance, the teenaged stranger you followed down a dark street—that gun becomes a liability. It pretty much forces the fight into a life-or-death situation, since control of the gun is likely to determine the winner. As Zimmerman’s explanation points out, he pretty much had to shoot Martin to preclude the possibility of Martin shooting him.
It’s the same reason I don’t carry a knife: if, heaven forfend, I get into a fight, I don’t want there to be a knife around. The problem with Osterman’s belief that any non-felon should carry a gun is that it magnifies the significance of any bad interaction. If we were all armed, there would probably be a lot fewer bar fights. The ones that did break out, though, would be much more likely to become bar murders.
That’s what happened to Zimmerman. He was not a cop, but he armed himself and went out at night to patrol his neighborhood anyway, literally looking for trouble. Whether he found trouble or made it is a matter for the court, but there is no question that he brought the trial and the misery of having killed a child upon himself, mostly by his vigilantism but also with his gun.
How different would Zimmerman’s life be if he were on trial for following Martin down the street, confronting him, and then breaking his arm in a kimura? How much happier and healthier would he be if he had taken up jiu jitsu instead of buying a gun? We’re well into the realm of conjecture, here, but how different would America look if former cops like Osterman told their friends to work out rather than carry around a machine that makes every fight into a life-or-death decision?