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George Zimmerman in the Bizzaro world of US gun laws


Police photo of George Zimmerman taken the night he killed Trayvon Martin from the State of Florida 9th Supplemental DiscoveryLast March I was called for jury duty for the she first time since I moved to California in 2010. Among the many things I learned as I listened to the judge question potential jurors was that California has a law that allows someone who is the victim of a crime to stand their ground and respond with a proportionate level of violence. It's the sort of thing some would counsel their children on a playground — don't let a bully push you around.

You can think of circumstances where such a rule makes sense for adults, too. That a woman being abused by her husband might lash back at the jerk with a frying pan in order to protect herself does not seem unreasonable.

The problem is, depending on a jury's judgment 'stand your ground' can go much farther than that. You hear what sounds like someone breaking into your house, you feel threatened, so you shoot that person dead. (There have been cases where people did that, only to discover that the 'intruder' was their spouse.) You see a bunch of blokes charging you, looking scary, so you pull a knife and stab them, but you are acquitted of any wrongdoing, even if they didn't have a weapon among them, and even if you completely misinterpreted what was going on.

That, in a nutshell, is how George Zimmerman got released on Saturday after shooting dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida two years ago. The circumstances of the case are astounding — Zimmerman, who had taken it upon himself to be a sort of neighbourhood security force of one, sees a black kid in a hoodie cutting through backyards and assumes the worst. (Which is what, one wonders? That the kid was going to bust into someone's house in the middle of the day?) Though the kid shows no signs of being dangerous, Zimmerman follows him.

The kid feels threatened — as he hurries on, he tells his girlfriend he's being followed by a creepy white guy. Eventually, some kind of physical confrontation ensues. What kind is almost impossible to say, as all we have is Zimmerman's point of view. Zimmerman shoots Martin, claiming he felt his life was being threatened.

And though that threat was entirely of his own making, and nowhere near the level he believed it to be, two years later, a jury of his peers agrees. It doesn't matter that he came into the situation already terrified of having a black kid in his neighbourhood. It doesn't matter that the worst Martin did was punch him. Zimmerman had the right to stand his ground, and now he's free.

In the days that followed, protests have lined the streets of many cities. In Los Angeles a crowd descended onto a major highway on Sunday, shutting it down. Pressure has been put on the Federal Government to take on the case, claiming that what Zimmerman did was a hate crime. It's hard to see that argument going anywhere, but it's clear that the Martin case is indicative of the race problems that persist in the US. Being black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American means being treated differently, scrutinised and profiled even when there is no cause for concern.

I would also say, this story is once again about America and its guns. Put simply, fearful men should not be able to walk suburban streets carrying a hidden revolver, whether they think they're protecting us or not.

And yet, somehow that's the Bizarro universe we live in here in the States. We are a country where every single day, people — usually minorities — are shot and/or killed. We are a country that in recent years has seen gunmen try to take out a Congresswoman, murder teenagers at numerous schools, decimate the occupants of a movie theater, even slaughter very young children. And still, we are not able to pass even the most basic of gun control legislation. Indeed, after each shooting the first thing that happens is that gun sales explode across the country; not because people don't feel safe, but because they fear Obama is going to respond by taking away their guns.

Many have cheered Obama's leadership since Newtown, especially the emotional speech he made as his gun control legislation ground to a halt. The fact remains that he, too, believes that Americans have the right to carry weapons; indeed, one of his very first comments as the cry went out for gun control legislation was to remind Americans that we have to respect other people's right to bear arms.

In conversations about climate change people talk about the tipping point, that moment when such dramatic change happens that it appears to have come from out of nowhere. In fact, the change was quietly happening all along, little by little. At the moment, when it comes to American's gun control laws, it seems like all we can hope is that such a tipping point is on its way. It certainly doesn't seem like a damn thing is happening right now.

What is clear — and a lesson for politicians and voters in both the United States and Australia — is this: if you spend your time creating a climate of anxiety, whipping up hysteria or building walls in order to score political points or justify prejudice, the inevitable eventual result is going to be children lying dead in your streets or drowned off your shores. And that should haunt our days.

Jim McDermott headshotJim McDermott SJ is a former associate editor at America Magazine. He is currently studying screenwriting at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, gun control, Obama, Newtown



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Existing comments

This article contains most of the falsehoods that have been doing the rounds in the MSM in America. The chief one is that Zimmerman is a racist. Jim McDermott writes that Zimmerman was "terrified of having a black kid in his neighbourhood". If Jim McDermott had cared to do more research, he would have found testimony from several blacks of Zimmerman's care and concern. Zimmerman mentored two young black boys. A black women, who moved into the neighbourhood, said that Zimmerman had dropped in to welcome her and to see if there was anything he could do. The FBI themselves found no evidence that Zimmerman was racist. It is also misleading to say that Martin only punched Zimmerman. There was eye-witness testimony that Martin was sitting on top of Zimmerman punching him "MMA style". Apart from the picture featured here of Zimmerman's broken nose, there is another that shows injuries to the back of the head, consistent with his head being banged in to the pavement. Martin was also no angel, not that this justifies Zimmerman shooting him. However, it was clear that he was into fighting. Messages recovered from his phone have him describing a fight that he had with another young black male. Zimmerman testified that Martin approached him. Given Martin's predilection for violence, there is every reason to believe this.

Joe Colreavy | 17 July 2013  

One further myth the article puts forward is that the acquittal of Zimmerman turned on a "stand your ground" law. Zimmerman was being held to the ground and bashed by Martin when he used his gun - he wasn't voluntarily "standing his ground", so any such law (whether or not one agrees with them) is irrelevant. McDermott concludes with these words: "If you spend your time creating a climate of anxiety, whipping up hysteria or building walls in order to score political points or justify prejudice, ..." Ironically, this is exactly what his article has done, in tandem with leftist across the U.S. from the President down, in one of the most blatant attempts to frame an innocent person in U.S. judicial history.

HH | 18 July 2013  

I'm not sure "the climate of anxiety" on the streets in the USA is quite the same as the questioning many in Middle Australia have about the bona fides of many (not all) seekers of asylum on these shores, Jim. American "gun culture", particularly in some areas, is something else. Does the same sort of ignorant racism, where a Sikh can be shot because he's mistaken for a Muslim, in supposed response for 9/11, exist here? Not in the same way it exists in the States, I think.

Edward F | 18 July 2013  

I am in the us at the present moment and can't believe that on one hand people are jumping up and down for justice (there was atrial and like it or not he was found not guilty) but the mob mentality means people opare put on the street because they don't like the verdict. They scream racism, injustice, and it goes on. If the gin laws were different, whether he was racist or not, there would not have been a gone to go off. The question isn't black or white, the question is to Bear arms or Not to bear arms.....

Kay Ishak | 19 July 2013  

Both Jim and (especially) the respondents make some good points. Jim is biased but that is not necessarily a bad thing in these crazy circumstances; the US is indeed a bizarre place, and having lived there and indeed been having been a citizen (past tense), you just have to accept that fact, and leave if you don`t want to be a part of it! It is not going to change. The "gun-slinger' and the citizen posse of the cowboy films is deep in the psyche; where else would you have an untrained armed man in a quasi-official policing role, as Zimmerman was. Not at all a bad man, but completely out of place and depth, and so dangerous to himself and others. Under the circumstances, all one can say is that Trayvon should have also have armed himself, so if he did get stalked by a creepy white guy, he too could "hold his ground" and shoot the crazy guy first! Not a nice place; but Australians need to understand the rules of that society.

Eugene | 19 July 2013  

I suppose we can only speculate about what the outcome would have been if Martin had been stalking Zimmerman and Zimmerman had responded with aggression, and Martin shot him dead. Such speculation would not add any light to the situation, and would probably just confirm everyone tin the opinion they have already formed of this case.

Robert Liddy | 19 July 2013  

Appreciate the comments on my article, also the correction that one witness saw Martin on top of Zimmerman punching him 'MMA style'. An important fact that I should have included. It's also worth noting in this regard, another witness testified she saw Zimmerman on top of Martin moments before Martin got shot. Thanks to all for the feedback.

Jim McDermott | 20 July 2013  

"It's also worth noting in this regard, another witness testified she saw Zimmerman on top of Martin moments before Martin got shot." If that witness is Selma Mora, it's been seriously misreported. Mora clearly states 13 mins into her testimony (available on youtube) that she heard the noise of the shot (though not interpreting it was a gunshot at that moment) and THEN went to her balcony from where she saw [Zimmerman] on top of [Martin]. There is no way one can infer from her words that she saw [Zimmerman] on top of [Martin] before she heard the gun shot.

HH | 20 July 2013  

So now Zimmerman, within days of his acquittal, has reportedly stopped to assist people out from a flipped car. The more that emerges about this man, so loathed by the liberals, and the subject of vile abuse and death threats, the better he looks.

HH | 23 July 2013  

Not quite sure who is the goodie and who is the baddie? But I do recall that in the westerns the baddie rode a black horse and the goodie a white horse.

David | 04 October 2013  

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