As we continue to struggle to comprehend how a man can shoot an unarmed teenager and not be legally accountable, it’s worth noting the larger players in all of this. George Zimmerman seemed well intentioned, if overly zealous. The problem is, he was sold a fantasy propagated by gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association that sent him, unwittingly, on a collision course with an incident. Unlucky break for George that he picked the absolute worst scenario in which to murder someone. I do believe that he probably didn’t plan on nor want to kill an unarmed teenager on the way back from the store holding nothing but skittles and iced tea. I also believe George Zimmerman wanted something to happen on one of his patrols, if only in that romantic and idealized way all of us fantasize about “what ifs”. In his case though, the “what if” became reality: heartbreaking and tragic.
From this lens, George Zimmerman isn’t a monster – or even overtly racist. Instead, he was manipulated and exploited by a movement that did not care about him further than as a cow to be milked of his money in exchange for guns and the facade of safety and control over imagined (or over-reported) threats. The National Rifle Association doesn’t kill people, but they give killers the tool they need to effectively do the job. If that were the only thing they did they would simply go down as despicable moneygrabbers, but they just can’t seem to leave their true intentions laid bare like that. Buying their product isn’t enough, we have to love them too.
To achieve that goal, they have to control the narrative. In a world where gun violence is increasingly directed at the gun owners themselves, or his or her family members (and disproportionately female), it must be hard to justify wanting more guns on the streets rather than less. To ensure profits, the narrative has to be unhinged from reality in such a way as to somehow convince a large section of society that they need guns in the home to ward off threats from outside the home. It isn’t hard. Especially when you play upon ingrained and deeply held beliefs about “other” groups.
Trayvon Martin had the misfortune of being born an “other”. George Zimmerman, while not Caucasian, still grew up in a society in which black men are portrayed on TV, movies and in the media as disproportionately violent, aggressive and troublesome. It’s an image that the NRA has cultivated, with great success, into a selling point. Protect your homes. People not like you are out there. Watching Trayvon slowly walk down a quiet, residential neighborhood must have seemed like something out of “The Wire”. He certainly looked like they said he would: He had a hoodie. He appeared in no hurry. He was black.
As a white male I don’t know what it’s like to be suspicious. Before writing this I walked across the street from my apartment to pick up some cat litter from a convenience store a block away. I took my time. I checked my phone. Stopped to answer a text. Kept moving. If I noticed a man following me in his car I would have been freaked out. Then again, I’ve never been treated with suspicion . I am given the benefit of the doubt. Young black males in our country aren’t given that luxury. In 2013, LaVar Burton (the reading rainbow guy) explains how differently he has to act around police officers than a white person. That should be viewed as unacceptable. That is unacceptable.
In all of this, it’s important to note that Trayvon didn’t “owe” George Zimmerman anything. I’ve heard it asked “why didn’t Travyon just stop and explain to Zimmerman that he was walking home?”, but I can’t believe that this question is what it has come to. A boy shouldn’t have to justify himself to a strange man just for being black while walking down the street. That should be viewed as unacceptable. That is unacceptable.
But again, I don’t believe that George Zimmerman was a racist, intentionally looking for a black boy to kill. I think he was taught by cowards – who hide behind innuendo and plausible deniability – to look for young, black men when patrolling his neighborhood. They don’t say “young, black men”, that would be racist. They call them “thugs”, “urban”, or “gangsta”. They mean young, black men.
The “Stand Your Ground” law, much discussed in this case, is not a form of institutionalized racism on the scale of Jim Crow laws (as some had claimed), instead it is a loophole that allows racism to seep into vigilantism that the George Zimmerman case perfectly illustrated. Essentially, the law says that if a person feels “threatened” then they have the right to kill the aggressor and aren’t required to “retreat”. I’m not being facetious when I say that the “Wild West” that this law is clearly based on wasn’t even as dumb as that. Presumably, even Wyatt Earp would have seen how that has the potential for about a prairie sized amount of interpretation and wiggle room. Again, the NRA and gun rights advocacy groups who were instrumental in passing the idiotic, racist and impractical “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida (and other states) have safeguarded themselves from criticism, but make no mistake, they have blood on their hands. “Stand Your Ground” is nebulous and contrary to the entire reason we have laws. It’s why George Zimmerman can be acquitted of a murder he definitely committed. It has such a “gee shucks” naivete as to be nearly impossible to prosecute against. How do you prove what a “threat” is? Can a racist, who views minorities as inherently threatening, shoot anyone he pleases as long as he thinks they look sufficiently “urban”? But even more absurdly, it gives asymmetrical power to the holder of the gun (the NRA must be thrilled). Because guns kill quickly, and fists often don’t, the “threat” is the man swinging punches.
That is why George Zimmerman is free at its most distilled. The defense was able to successfully argue that because Trayvon was using his fists as weapons and George Zimmerman was clearly losing the fight (the one he instigated) that Trayvon deserved to be shot. Presumably, if Trayvon had a gun and felt threatened by George Zimmerman when he approached him he would have been in his right to kill him. But only one person had a gun that night. Fists take time. Bullets are quick. Trayvon isn’t here any more to defend himself and George walks free. That should be viewed as unacceptable. It is unacceptable.
So, in a weird way, George Zimmerman was wrapped up in something larger than he realized. He had been promised a fantasy that reality didn’t deliver. He had to learn through murdering an innocent boy that the idea that guns are defensive measures against intruders or aggressors is a false one. Unlike the simplistic world view that gun culture perpetuates, we live in a world of gray. Often the aggressors are our friends, or our family. Sometimes they are us. Our children, too. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as watching for the black guy in the hoodie. That lack of predictability may be scarier, it means a loss of control – and guns have always been marketed as tools of control in a scary world – but realizing that means less of this. It can’t bring Trayvon Martin back but it can, hopefully, prevent the next time. That should be viewed as possible. It is possible.
Pictured above are *some* of the supplies the man (identified as John Zawahri) suspected of going on a multiple location shooting spree in Santa Monica yesterday brought with him. If that is unsettling, remember that the NRA is actively making sure that owning this much ammunition and those type of deadly firearms is completely legal. If they hoped we would have forgotten about Newtown by now, their “responsible gun owners” keep reminding us why we must not.
John Zawahri’s motives for the killings are unclear, but I’m here to argue that they don’t matter. I have absolutely no interest in hearing why he went on this deadly rampage. No grievance, or slight, or ideological agenda could justify or explain this event. The only truly important detail we need is something we already know:
A family friend of the gunman who killed four people during a Santa Monica shooting rampage said he had an intense interest in guns.
The friend, who asked not to be identified, said John Zawahri, 24, had “a fascination with guns. We were all worried about it…. Everyone is wondering where he got the money for the weapons.”
A fascination with guns. That’s the gun powder in the barrel, so does it really matter what kind of match was used to light it? Can we even keep calling these events tragedies any more? Just like we can’t keep calling things like the shooting of a father by his 4 year old son an “accident”, the nomenclature is misleading. They are a product of our own design. These are part of a pattern and they will continue to happen until we decide enough is enough. And enough is enough. It has been enough. For a brief moment after Newtown it looked as though we had seen that, but then we let it slip through our hands. Again. And now five more people are dead.
The assault weapons ban failed. The gun the suspect used to kill four people and injure five more is still allowed in most places (a few states were brave enough to be the change the federal government failed to be). Taking that gun from him would have, the NRA argued, infringed upon his rights. Somehow, the NRA has framed the debate in such a way, that anything this man does up until the bullet enters another human being’s body makes him, not only a law abiding citizen, but also a paragon of society. If we must have gun owners at all, do we really need to worship them as well? Let’s not pretend that they are supermen who bravely protect our free democracy. Most are just selfish and want their toys. Some have a fascination with guns that leads to murder. Neither should be worshiped.
It’s been pointed out that spree killings and mass murders make up a small fraction of total deaths by guns each year. This is true, and should be taken into account when making future gun laws, but what makes spree killings and mass murders so different is how easy it would be to reduce their impact. We will most likely never be able to stop a person when he (and let’s be honest, it’s almost always a “he”) decides he wants to take the lives of people and doesn’t care who they are or how he will do it, but that doesn’t mean preventing him from getting military grade weapons should be off the table. Owning 1,200 rounds of ammunition as this suspect did, or using a semi-automatic AR-15, are easy things we can target when thinking about gun control. It shouldn’t even be controversial because it doesn’t take away “guns”, just *some* guns. It doesn’t take away ammo, just limits it to a reasonable amount. You can still go to the firing range to shoot. You can still protect your family if there is a dangerous intruder (although I wouldn’t recommend it).
The entire episode in Santa Monica lasted about 10 minutes. 10 minutes from start to finish. If this guy had a gun that only held 10 bullets, it would have given at least some of the victims a fighting chance to flee. Instead, he barely had to pause. That’s a problem and these are simple things we can do to prevent tragic deaths. They aren’t expensive. They aren’t complicated. They aren’t intrusive. But instead, let’s watch as the conversation gets muddied yet again by arguments that ignore all semblance of reason and instead pervert the message into hyperbolic nonsense that prevents any meaningful change (which, as I’ve said again and again, is precisely the point).
Because this isn’t Newtown, and because the media has way too many juicy stories to work through right now (Doesn’t the word “spying” just have a marketable ring to it?), this story won’t lead to any results in gun control. The people who were murdered for no other reason than the spending power of the NRA and the indifference of the average American will be forgotten except by those who knew and loved them. Instead, this story will be placed in the pile of other stories that exposes the inconvenient truth that guns don’t kill people, people with a fascination with guns and easy access to them protected by powerful interest groups with tangible, quantifiable financial stakes in gun sales kill people.
Even better, we can focus on his Muslim sounding name and forget that guns were used at all.
This is madness.
This past week, when a 5 year old boy accidently shot his 2 year old sister to death with a kid friendly .22 caliber Crickett rifle, the reaction was of sadness, of course, but also of surprise (how could this have happened?). Even the coroner – who should know better – expressed sentiments that this was just a random occurrence that simply no one could have predicted, like that meteor in Russia or Nicki Minaj’s popularity. His exact quote is:
Just one of those crazy accidents
Let me beg to differ. Giving a 4 year old a rifle is an accident waiting to happen. And it does… a lot.
Chalking the whole sad affair again to “just one of those things”, a State Trooper investigating the death said:
“It’s just one of those nightmares. A quick thing that happens when you turn your back.”
But you see, unbeknownst to the family, the rifle still had one bullet in the chamber when they left it leaning up against the corner of a room. So to recap, if you leave a loaded gun that is specifically designed and marketed for children leaning against a wall in a room he has access to its just one of those unavoidable nightmares. I’m sure the parents can rest easy knowing that they are absolved from all blame in this. There was absolutely nothing they could do to prevent this.
The rifle maker (don’t bother clicking the link, the site has been down since the shooting) shouldn’t be too hard on itself either. After all, in this creepy advertisement for the gun they made it seem like so much fun.
You see! They even have a pink one for Mom or daughter! Aw.
What is lost in this recent and spirited gun debate, where hyperbole and strawman are thrown around by increasingly agitated gun enthusiasts is the cold facts. Guns kill people. Most of the time from suicide or accident. Having a gun in the house increases those odds exponentially. The myth that both the coroner and the State Trooper buy into that we live in a world where things “just happen” and we can’t stop it. That is not true, and we are doing a disservice to our children and to ourselves by continuing to bury our heads in the sand in order to not be confronted with a reality we don’t want to deal with. In a very real way, a 2 year old girl would still be alive had that family not felt the need to buy a 4 year old a rifle for his birthday. We don’t live in some Final Destination world where when “fate” decides a person’s time is up, they’ll get her one way or the other. We should live in the empirically driven world of facts and foster a society wide motivation to reduce gun violence and accidents by any means necessary. I hope the Crickett website is down from a crisis of conscience and not damage control.
- 5 year old shot 2 yr old sister (mixupstory.wordpress.com)
- 5-year-old kills sister with gun ‘gift’ (edition.cnn.com)
- boy, 5, shoots and kills two-year-old sister with first rifle (thesun.co.uk)