Yesterday’s decision by Florida prosecutors to put George Zimmerman on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin may serve to calm some of the racially charged anger about the incident in which an unarmed African-American youth was killed. Though some are already claiming the Zimmerman case will resemble the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the way it divides the public, it’s clear most Americans are content to let the justice system sift through the evidence and hope that justice will be done. Outside of the usual suspects seeking to inflame racial tensions (i.e., Al Sharpton, a veteran huckster whose efforts along these lines received the bizarre praise of Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday), there is another political agenda that is being pushed forward by the Martin killing: derailing efforts of the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups to enhance the right of self-defense via “Stand Your Ground” statutes or the “Castle Doctrine.”
Though we have yet to learn the full account of what happened between Zimmerman and Martin on the night of the latter’s death, it’s fairly clear that neither of those legal principles had much to do with the neighborhood watch volunteer’s shooting of the young man in the hoodie except in the most general sense, as the shooter asserted he was attacked first. But the effort to associate laws that back up citizens’ rights to defend themselves on their own property with Martin’s killing is becoming a touchstone of liberal rhetoric and reportage, as today’s New York Times feature on the subject illustrates. The conceit of the piece is to pin the nationwide drive to enact such legislation on the NRA and along with it the responsibility for any innocent blood shed because of these measures. Yet, what the Times and liberal critics of the laws fail to understand is that the popularity of such laws has to do with what most Americans believe is the defense of their liberty and safety and not race.
It needs to be understood that nothing in the “Castle Doctrine” or the “Stand Your Ground” statutes that have been passed in Florida and many other states would make it permissible for a person to seek out a suspected intruder and shoot him as it is alleged is the case with Zimmerman. But though liberals look askance at the laws, the reason why they have been passed with such ease has more to do with the fact that a majority thinks it is reasonable that citizens have the right to use force to defend themselves in their homes, backyards or even inside their cars.
The left-right ideological divide over gun rights in this country is fairly clear. Conservatives feel Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms and to use them in self-defense. By contrast, most liberals disagree with the Supreme Court about the meaning of the Second Amendment and would like to see gun rights severely restricted if not functionally eliminated, as is the case with some cities where regulations make it difficult if not impossible for most citizens to legally own a weapon. This is an ongoing debate in which both sides often talk past each other and feed into each other’s worst fears. Indeed, some of the NRA’s efforts to derail even the most sensible efforts at controlling the use of guns that are not necessary for either sport or self-defense — such as assault weapons — stems from a not entirely unfounded belief that the ultimate goal of any such measure is the banning of all guns.
This is, at best, a divisive debate, but it needn’t be exacerbated by the injection of race into the discussion. The attempt to brand self-defense laws or gun rights as a function of racism does nothing to advance racial harmony or a sensible resolution of issues arising from the use of weapons. Most Americans are satisfied with letting the courts deal with George Zimmerman. Liberal ideologues would be well advised to let the case resolve itself without attempting to turn it into a referendum on gun control or seeking to demonize the NRA.