Americans like their guns, and seem to like the idea that those guns frighten others, as that makes you free – no one can mess with you. They might get shot, dead. That’ll make them think twice. And everyone knows the National Rifle Association, defending our right to bear arms, which seems to be in the Second Amendment – although that amendment mysteriously only refers to well-regulated state militias – is the most powerful lobby in Washington. Yes, they’ve recently been vastly outnumbered and outspent by the massive army of lobbyists of the banks and investment industry, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defang Dodd-Frank and anything else that even vaguely regulates the markets. But that’s a special case, for a specific moment. The NRA has been around forever, and will still be here long after the new guys get rid of all the rules about trading and contracts and fraud. Guns are forever, or they should be, or something.
And it’s just a mind-set. Many single guys – well, some of us – have had the woman we’re dating demand to know where our loaded gun is, and whether we’re good with it. The idea is they don’t feel they’re respected unless the man is packing – as that means the man is willing to protect them, and stand up for them – to cherish them. And thus not having a high-caliber loaded sidearm in the car or on the kitchen counter is often a deal-breaker. No woman wants to date a coward. But maybe that’s a Los Angeles thing. But it’s real enough.
And you can see that kind of thinking in this incident from West Monroe, Louisiana:
At a campaign stop at a firing range, while Rick Santorum was firing off some rounds, a woman shouted, “Pretend it’s Obama!” Santorum, who was far from the woman, couldn’t hear the comment as he proceeded with his target practice. Neither could his staffers.
But the yell – the identity of the yeller is not clear, although the words were clearly audible – was in close proximity to journalists traveling with the candidate.
“It’s absurd,” Santorum said of the woman’s outburst when reporters told him about it. “No we’re not pretending it’s anybody but shooting pistols. It’s a very terrible and horrible remark and I’m glad I didn’t hear it.”
But when you really don’t like someone you do want to blow their brains out, the first option, or at least slit their throat and watch them bleed-out and die, the second option, as discussing your differences with them, maybe the seventeenth option, is so bleeding-heart wimp-liberal, or French. Real Americans fix things themselves. We are a proud people. Or that seems to be the impulse here. Santorum just said the nice-nice thing – that we’re not like this. But that’s what you’re supposed to say, and if you spend months and months stoking outrage and anger this is what you get. The Louisiana woman in question might say she was only joking, but she really wasn’t.
But this leads to odd events, like the case of Trayvon Martin:
The 17-year-old, who is black, was walking to a friend’s home in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., when a neighborhood-watch volunteer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, spotted him. Zimmerman, whose father says identifies as Hispanic, called the cops to report a suspicious person. They told him not to follow. “They always get away,” Zimmerman told dispatch in a 911 call released Friday, and he kept tracking Martin. Zimmerman had a gun. Martin was carrying only an ice tea and the Skittles he’d just bought at the store. The two had a struggle that no one saw. Hearing shots, neighbors called 911. In one call that’s hard to listen to, a woman anxiously says she can hear someone calling for help while in the background, a terrified, wailing voice pleads, “No! No!”
Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, but he said he did so in self-defense.
The summary is from Emily Bazelon and this seems a local story, without major implications – but the Sanford police say they don’t have enough evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s claim and arrest him. They said there was nothing they could do, because of Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law – which the National Rifle Association pretty much wrote, and then lobbied for, and got passed over the objections of most everyone in Florida law enforcement and almost all the legal community. They are a powerful lobby.
And Bazelon refers to Jeannie Suk, a Harvard law professor who wrote an article in 2008 on this law and how it derives from seventeenth-century English common law – people whose lives were threatened in a public place could use deadly force to defend themselves – but only after retreating as far as possible. It was up to the king and his guys to keep the peace. Everyone else was supposed to “stand aside” – unless someone broke into your house. Then you could kill him that fellow without retreating. A man’s home was his castle, where he was king – and thus we got the Castle Doctrine. And Bazelon runs through the history of how that’s been expanded – someone under attack could “repel force by force” if he was attacked “in a place where he has a right to be” – or so said the Supreme Court in 1895. This was the “true man” doctrine – “A true man, who is without fault, is not obliged to fly from an assailant, who by violence or surprise, maliciously seeks to take his life or do him enormous bodily harm.” And now we are where we are in Florida, with the 2005 changes:
The new rules made for more shooting and less retreating. And they set the stage for Florida to ditch the duty to retreat entirely, which the legislature did in passing the nation’s first Stand Your Ground law in 2005. Florida’s new law did three things: It further loosened the restrictions on using deadly force at home. It scrapped the duty to retreat in public places. And it gave people who use self-defense civil and criminal immunity.
Pushing for these changes, NRA President Marion Hammer focused on women and their need to protect themselves. “You can’t expect a victim to wait and ask, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, are you going to rape me and kill me, or are you just going to beat me up and steal my television?” she said.
Prosecutors opposed the Stand Your Ground law, and they still complain about it. “It is an abomination,” former Broward County Prosecutor David Frankel told the Sun Sentinel in January. “The ultimate intent might be good, but in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot.”
And Bazelon see things now as a bit out of control:
It’s that decision not to press charges that makes Stand Your Ground laws, which a bunch of other states have adopted, a crazy departure from the past. It’s one thing to raise self-defense at trial. It’s another to have what the Florida Supreme Court calls “true immunity.” True immunity, the court said, means a trial judge can dismiss a prosecution, based on a Stand Your Ground assertion, before trial begins.
At least there’s supposed to be a hearing before that happens, at which the defendant has the burden of proof. And yet Stand Your Ground laws often lead prosecutors to decide against so much as bringing charges. According to the Sun Sentinel, “In case after case during the past six years, Floridians who shot and killed unarmed opponents have not been prosecuted.”
Now the death of Trayvon Martin is the latest in that line. Maybe this is the kind of case that is so sad and so tinged with racism that Florida will think hard about the very scary place where their self-defense laws have taken them.
Or maybe not… but President Obama finally said something about this:
President Obama weighed in Friday on the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, calling it a national tragedy – and saying that the young man reminded him of his own children.
“When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids,” Obama said in Rose Garden remarks. “I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together.”
But this wasn’t easy for him:
Obama has come under fire from some black leaders for failing to comment on a case that has become a major national story – and brought thousands of Americans into the streets for demonstrations calling for the arrest of Martin’s shooter. One black leader even wondered why Obama called a Georgetown student who was attacked by Rush Limbaugh, but not Martin’s family. Obama’s comments Friday represent the first time the president has addressed the growing controversy.
“My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said. “All of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves.”
“Obviously this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” Obama said. “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how something like this has happened.”
Well, maybe not all of us, but Salon’s Joan Walsh is on the same page:
Grief and outrage over the Trayvon Martin killing has been reassuringly universal, uniting people of all races. You have to wade deep into the muck of comments sections on right-wing websites to find anyone who expresses anything but horror at an innocent 17-year-old boy in a hoodie being gunned down in cold blood, while out buying Skittles for his little brother.
Something about the grief and outrage is also unique to African-Americans. Most of the rest of us are rightly sickened. If we are parents, we can feel the horror of something cruel and crazy happening to our own kids. Yet if our kids aren’t black, we can imagine that pain, we can empathize with it, but we can’t directly experience it. It feels imperative to acknowledge that singular ache and intolerable injustice even as we empathize.
And she’s willing to cut Obama some slack:
I understand why he waited; it also makes me sad that he felt that he had to. Our first black president wears painful restraints when it comes to what he can and cannot say about racial issues. The grief he shared Friday morning was all the more affecting for the somber, measured way he expressed it.
Noting that he had to be careful not to “impair” the Justice Department’s investigation into Martin’s killing, Obama spoke directly to the suffering of his parents. …
He’s right; every parent should be able to understand that. Then he took the risky but necessary step of making the tragedy personal. Recommending we all “do some soul searching to find out why something like this happened,” he added, “But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin.” Here, he paused for a long moment. “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And, you know, I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.” You could feel his personal grief as he closed out his remarks and stepped away from the cameras.
Obama has been clumsy before on racial matters, like with that Louis Gates thing, but Walsh thinks Obama handled this perfectly:
His most important contribution, of course, was putting his Justice Department behind the investigation – one that Sanford, Fla., officials horribly botched. He correctly made that his first priority. But it was important, for all of us, that he said what he did Friday morning. It’s true that our first African-American president must be the president of all of us. But that includes African-Americans, and it’s a sad measure of where we are as a nation, racially, that he must be particularly cautious when he decides whether and how to weigh in on even obvious racial injustice.
Many of us have been sympathetic to the restraints he wears while nevertheless wondering when he would say something about the tragedy. He did so Friday with a palpable sadness, for the family of Trayvon Martin, for himself, and for all of us.
Well, Walsh is a white woman, but Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black man:
Stunning. Pitch perfect. No idea how it’ll play. Don’t care right now. Maybe I’ll care later. But for now, I just felt it was a stunning exercise in political minimalism. That’s a compliment.
But of course Obama said that if he had a son his son would look like Trayvon Martin, and Newt Gingrich immediately and forcefully called that comment disgraceful:
“It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background,” Gingrich said. “Is the President suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be okay because it didn’t look like him?”
Earlier in the day Gingrich had been saying that he thought this case should be investigated and maybe, just maybe, the shooter was at fault – but here was Obama making this a race thing and stirring up the blacks against the whites. But Gingrich didn’t go full Glenn Beck – saying Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people. Gingrich only implied that. And later in the day Michelle Malkin said Obama was purposefully pouring gas on the fire and made her three key points:
What do Trayvon’s race and looks have to do with anything? The political opportunism undercuts the very “seriousness” Obama purports to display. …
The Al Sharpton/New Black Panthers Party-led mob is forging ahead with its polarizing racial profiling narratives despite the fact that the alleged shooter is Hispanic and multiracial. …
The blame game bonanza is in full swing, with Barack Obama’s tacit consent.
Obama is stirring up a race war, when America got over all the racial stuff long ago, as they see it. And that seems to be the general take on the right, with one exception:
On the March 23 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera reacted to the killing of 17-year-old, unarmed Florida resident Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman by claiming, “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.”
Rivera said: “I believe that George Zimmerman, the overzealous neighborhood watch captain should be investigated to the fullest extent of the law and if he is criminally liable, he should be prosecuted” but went on to claim Martin “wore an outfit that allowed someone to respond in this irrational, overzealous way.”
The full transcript follows that, and Politico reported that when asked later whether he would retract his statement, Rivera replied “absolutely not.”
Asked whether he would take back his earlier comments on Fox News in light of the criticism, Rivera told POLITICO in an email, “Absolutely not,” while citing his recently published column on Fox News Latino called, “Geraldo Rivera: Trayvon Martin Would Be Alive but for His Hoodie” that makes the similar arguments that the Fox News host made on the air.
But even Ed Morrissey at the hard-right site Hot Air was taken aback:
I do get what Rivera is saying; I had this conversation with my nephew when he was a teenager, explaining that clothes are a statement of values that get communicated instantly to the people around him, especially to those who don’t know him. That doesn’t mean that baggy pants or a hoodie makes you complicit in your own death when someone shoots you for no other reason, however, and it’s a blame-the-victim impulse to make that argument.
Well everyone knows women are raped because they dress sexy, or something. That’s why all women should wear black tent-like burqas of course. But Rivera didn’t go there.
And there’s Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog:
It’s the word “responsible” that makes this outrageous. It actually is true that young non-white males endanger themselves when they wear certain clothes that I, as a white male, can wear without a second thought (and could wear without a second thought even if I were 17) – but that’s not right. If Geraldo had put this reality in those terms, he could have made this point. He might have sounded like the black parents who talk about impressing upon their sons the need never to question cops or make sudden movements, issues young non-white males have to deal with in addition to clothing choices if they want to stay safe. But again, this is not right.
The hoodie was not “responsible.” What was “responsible” was George Zimmerman’s stereotyped reaction to a young African-American male’s hoodie, combined with his rage. The stereotype is at fault. Zimmerman is at fault. Not the hoodie.
But then he watched Fox News as they decided to call on Juan Williams for some damage control:
Fox is still walking on eggshells with regard to this case – Ailes trotted out the channel’s token non-white star, and token non-wingnut, to address this issue, thus giving the Foxsters deniability if this blows up (as it has).
You know, Roger and Rupert, if your ideology actually were defensible, you could just openly address this. But you can’t, can you? You can’t admit that the young black male was innocent because you’ve worked your audience up for years to believe that all blacks (apart from blacks who are right-wing ideologues) are evil or criminal or rendered incapable of responsible citizenship after years of dwelling on the “liberal plantation.” But you’re afraid to attack him directly because you’ve got nothing to attack him for and you know you’ll be called on it. You’re stuck. So you let the Latino guy take the hit.
And in the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb put things this way:
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin (black, male, seventeen, unarmed save for a packet of candy and a bottle of iced tea) did not so much raise questions as it confirmed suspicions: that we remain stratified or at best striated by race, that “innocent” is a relative term, that black male lives can end under capricious circumstances, and that justice is in the eye of the beholder – ideas that are as cynical as they are applicable. At this juncture, events in Sanford, Florida, suggest the benefit of the doubt in the shooting of a black teen-ager extends even to unauthorized, untrained, weapon-toting private citizens who pursue unarmed pedestrians.
And Julian Sanchez offers this:
Supposing we actually believed Zimmerman’s unbelievable story, could it have been remotely reasonable for him to think lethal force was necessary to defend himself from imminent death or grave bodily harm? He had no hope of holding the boy off for a few minutes until someone else arrived? No “I’ve got a gun” or “I’ll shoot” against an unarmed opponent?
Maybe there’s some story he could tell at trial that would at least get you to reasonable doubt, but I don’t see why a jury would be forbidden from concluding that Zimmerman’s response was so wildly disproportionate to the threat that no reasonable person could regard it as necessary, even if they believe Martin threw the first punch. Not to be flip about it, but fistfights happen all the time – and I’ve got to assume that killing the guy who started it would not be a reasonable or justifiable resolution to the large majority of them.
And Robert VerBruggen, who defends Florida’s odd self-defense laws in the conservative National Review, actually sides against Zimmerman:
His actions went well beyond defending himself and others from physical threats and into the territory of vigilantism – and they should be illegal. Zimmerman sought out this confrontation, and as a result a young man is dead – a young man who was unarmed, who was not carrying drugs, and who very well may have done nothing more than defend himself against a stranger who followed him on the street.
But Zimmerman can now use the True-Man defense against any charge of vigilantism, and he has the law in his side. But who is the true man here? Maybe we need to discuss that, as that’s the larger issue. Carrying a gun doesn’t make you a true man, no matter what your date says. There’s a bit more to it.