By Ted Braun
The National Rifle Association has lobbied hard to get states to adopt "Stand Your Ground" laws. This law originally stated that a person could use deadly force in self-defense in one's own home if there was a reasonable belief that one's life was in danger. Many states have extended the "ground" concept beyond the home to include responding to a deadly threat in any public location. This expansion fits in well with the NRA's Second Amendment emphasis and its desire to increase the number of armed citizens in our society.
An example of this has been the focus of a trial in Sanford, Florida, this past week. On the Sunday evening of February 26, 2012, a 17-year-old African-American, Trayvon Martin, was walking back to his father's apartment in a gated community from a convenience store when he was followed and then stopped by a 28-year-old Hispanic, George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer and wannabe police officer armed with a 9 mm handgun.
Zimmerman, just before his confrontation with Martin, was recorded in a cell phone call to 911 as making racial slurs, and then being advised to stop following Martin. Zimmerman, however, got out of his car and a struggle ensued which ended with Zimmerman shooting and killing Martin. He told police afterward that he believed his life to be in danger, and that he had shot Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman wasn't arrested until almost a month later.
A jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman this past week decided that Zimmerman justifiably used deadly force and reasonably believed that such force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself. He was released from custody and his gun returned to him.
In the days following the verdict, protests have taken place around the country about issues of racial animosity and profiling, the penalties for walking around in a black skin, civil rights, and questions concerning Stand Your Ground laws. It is interesting to consider what might have been an alternative scenario: If Trayvon Martin had been a year older in Florida, he could have carried a gun. Encountering a threatening George Zimmerman, he could have believed that his life was in great danger, and therefore could have shot and killed Zimmerman in self-defense. Is there any doubt that the NRA (or the Tea Party, for that matter) would have supported such an outcome?
The death of Trayvon Martin provides several important challenges to us. One is revealed in stark figures: 116,385 children and teens, including 44,038 who were black, have been killed by guns since 1979 (when gun data was first collected in our country). 5,740 children and teens were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009, greater than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan (5,013). What can we do about gun violence, instead of the NRA's answer of more guns in people's hands?
A second challenge is lifted up in a longer segment by Henry Giroux, but one important enough to hear and ponder over: "When traces of the social contract and our responsibility to present and future generations were still alive in the United States (prior to the late 1970s), many Americans believed it took a social state and a strong community to raise a child. That is, they believed in social safety nets that offered social protections, decent health care, child care and important social rights that affirmed the centrality of, and shared experience of, the common good, if not democracy itself.
"What many Americans now accept is a mode of 'failed sociality' that has turned the principles of democracy against itself, deforming both the language of freedom and justice that made equality a viable idea and political goal. Community as a metaphor for the common good and social contract is dead in America. Community is now gated and policed, and responsibility is reduced to a private and privately contracted affair shaped by a set of values that breathe a kind of mad savagery into a new form of economic Darwinism. In this market-driven, hypermasculine and militarized society, shared modes of society that provide collective protections and expand the rights of the social contract are now viewed with disdain."
How can we create a different kind of grounding for our communities so that "Standing Your Ground" can have a beneficial outcome for all people, young and old?