David Hoppe

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:: Guns win the Martin case

Enabling American paranoia

by David Hoppe

There were plenty of losers in the Trayvon Martin case. From Martin’s parents, who forever lost their son, to the American jury system, which took a severe hit to its credibility, the field was strewn with bodies, not the least being Martin himself, shot and killed at the age of 17 years.

Even George Zimmerman, the shooter acquitted in Martin’s killing, is not unscathed. He walked out of the courtroom a marked man.

The only winner in this rash and violent story is America’s paranoid crush on guns.

We like to call America the land of the free. But there has always been a great fear beneath the surface of this boast. “Freedom is not free,” says a popular bumper sticker, meaning not just that we have to work at liberty, but be prepared to defend it from a world that apparently lives for nothing so much as to take our freedom away.

That world is a dangerous place.

This message took hold from the time the first colonists arrived on the shores of what was a wild and scary land. Nature was experienced as a predatory force. Everything from the weather to the people already living here, were seen as being out to get us. Survival meant a fight.

We’ve never lost this attitude. Many would say it’s been the secret of our success. As an old Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, anticipating the doctrine of shock and awe by over a century once said, the secret to winning a fight is “to get there firstest with the mostest.”

That’s why George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, brought his gun on the night he followed Trayvon Martin. A rash of burglaries and vandalism in his neighborhood had prompted Zimmerman to start a neighborhood watch group. People there were on edge. As one woman, whose house was broken into, told Amy Green for the Daily Beast, “There was definitely a sense of fear in the neighborhood after all of this started happening, and it just kept on happening. It wasn't just a one-time thing. It was every week…Our next-door neighbor actually said if someone came into his yard he would shoot him. If someone came into his house he would shoot him. Everyone felt afraid and scared."

The sense in the neighborhood was that young black men were the perpetrators. Trayvon Martin, as they say, fit that profile.

But Martin wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was a kid, visiting his dad.

George Zimmerman was carrying a gun. When Zimmerman saw Martin he called the police. The Dispatcher said: “Are you following him?”

“Yeah,” replied Zimmerman.

Dispatcher: “OK, we don’t need you to do that.”  

As we know, Zimmerman did it anyway. He got there firstest with the mostest and, a few minutes later, Trayvon Martin was dead.

Being afraid is a horrible thing. I once lived in a house that police told us was targeted by a burglary gang. Black teens knocked on our door at various times of the day and night to see when and whether we were home. The cops told us this gang would surely break in and that we should call for help as soon as they did, but that they — the police — couldn’t do anything until that moment.

This made me furious, as well as afraid. I could have bought a gun, played an American urban pioneer. I could have turned out like George Zimmerman. I moved instead.

Not everyone can do that. That’s one reason gun sales keep climbing.

This ascent has been given a boost by the law called “Stand Your Ground.” A collaboration between the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association (NRA), this legislation enables public paranoia in the cause of self-defense. It legalizes the use of deadly force if a person (according to the law), “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

The NRA carried this so-called model bill to the Florida legislature, where it was passed in 2005. Since then the ALEC model has been adopted by 16 states, including Wisconsin, where on March 3, a 20 year-old college student — also black — named Bo Morrison was shot and killed by a homeowner in the town of Slinger. Morrison was hiding in some bushes, trying to evade police after attending an underage drinking party.

Fear has been a tonic for the gun business. Guns are a $12-billion-a-year industry in this country. In 2005, the same year that the NRA and ALEC got their model bill passed in Florida, Congress passed an NRA-lobbied law granting gunmakers immunity from liability lawsuits related to gun violence in American cities. Clearly, the gun is our drug of choice for dealing with whatever — and whoever — scares us.

George Zimmerman followed his fear the night he killed Trayvon Martin. Given that fear, he probably thought it was smart to be carrying a gun. What happened next was justified by a law and backed by an entire industry. Most of all, it was fed by paranoia: America’s national pastime.