Published Mar 27, 2012

The death of Trayvon Martin is probably one of those things that will be hashed and rehashed for generations. It’s sad all around, but one thing that’s not come up is that George Zimmerman went out with a tool that’s good for only one thing: killing someone:

Guns, Hey, Good God Y’all, What Are They Good For?

This isn’t your standard liberal “let’s take away all the guns!” post. I’m prepared to agree that the possession of a firearm has value as a political statement, and that, further, it’s important that we live in a world in which the government knows it’s dependent on the non-guaranteed assent of its citizens. (Although: good luck taking on the US military with your handgun!) Second Amendment? Whether it means we should have guns in the closet or a people in arms or just a shotgun here and there to protect against Indian raids, it’s an important part of our Constitution.

But there’s a difference between guns as a political statement and guns as something you carry around on a day-to-day basis. Face it: a gun has one mode of operation, and that’s to propel a small piece of metal into something at a very high rate of speed. There’s no stun mode, shoot-to-wound is only a myth, and the value of a gun as a threat only lies in its potential use to kill. So, when Zimmerman went out, he went out with a tool designed specifically and only to kill. He might not have planned to kill that day, but that strikes me more as a misunderstanding of the tool than anything else.

The Soft Bigotry of Not Packing

Now, Trayvon didn’t have a gun. Which apparently means that he wasn’t, in the legal sense, standing his ground: Zimmerman was. But a reasonable interpretation of events seems to me to be that Trayvon felt threatened, turned to confront his assailant — I presume that he had no legal requirement to avoid the conflict — and the two ended up in a physical altercation. Perhaps Trayvon went for Zimmerman’s gun and Zimmerman shot him. Apparently, because Zimmerman was packing, he was defending himself: Trayvon was the attacker.

This comes back to the issue of the purpose of a gun: in this altercation there was a tool that had no purpose but to kill. If Trayvon knew that there was a gun there, then he of course went for it, because he knew there could be no purpose to it but to kill him. If Trayvon went for the gun, Zimmerman had to shoot him, because there could be no purpose to Trayvon taking the weapon but to kill Zimmerman. Someone was ending up dead.

(Although I suppose there’s an argument for everyone having a gun in this conflict: perhaps if Trayvon had drawn down, there would’ve been a stand-off and the police would’ve arrived in time for everyone to live. Perhaps there’s an issue in the disparity of force that itself drove the situation.)

So Whose Fault Was It?

Being a good liberal, I probably sound like I’m blaming Zimmerman here; but really I’m not. It’s common to think that carrying a gun adds to security, but really all it does is give you a threat, and then one additional level of response that really you must use if you’re called on that threat. Most people don’t appreciate that part of the reality.

No, what I think we have here is a poor man — probably mentally ill, actually, based on the descriptions I’ve read of him — who tried to find some level of authority and meaning in that threat and promise of security that a gun can provide; and a second poor boy who perceived that threat and responded aggressively.

Why I Sympathize With Trayvon

Sure, I sympathize because I used to live in a bad neighborhood and I’d walk to the Jack in the Box at midnight wearing my USC hoodie. We all look scary in hoodies, I guess. But more than that I sympathize because I’ve been confronted with force before (although not a gun pointed at me) and I’ve responded with aggression myself, pretty consistently, and I can see myself attacking a guy with a gun who threatened me. I’d perceive that as my best self-defense, and I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this would, if I did defend myself this way, compliment me for having stood up to the other guy. I mean, it’s the modern ethos of self-reliance and self-defense, right?

So there’s the thing: if you pointed a gun at me, I’d try to take it away from you. (And I know how.) And then you’d have to shoot me, because otherwise I’d shoot you. That’s why I sympathize with Trayvon: he didn’t start the situation, but he responded the way I think I would have, and he paid with his life because someone else had chosen beforehand, for no good reason, to bring a tool to the tussle that required someone die once combat ensued.

So What’s the Solution?

To not carry a gun around, silly. I’m not saying don’t own a gun, just don’t carry it around unless you intend to shoot someone with it. That’s a simple rule, no? You can’t really threaten with a gun unless you intend to use it, and you shouldn’t intend to use it unless in self-defense, and almost nobody is going to walk down the street and be able to effectively use a firearm against an attacker. (That mugger will have a gun to your head before you can draw down.) 

So don’t carry a gun. And, if for some reason you do, take responsibility for whatever it is you do with that gun. Make sure that shooting the person you shoot is important enough that the consequences are worth it.