As I’ve talked to friends this past week, including a high-level, African-American business executive, there have been two initial responses, as they watched the Trayvon Martin tragedy unfold. The first was shock and outrage that such a high-potential, innocent young man could have been murdered in cold blood, in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. The second was: That could very easily have been me.
The most frightening aspect of the teenager’s murder is that it was entirely arbitrary, random and subjective. He just happened to have come from buying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea that evening. He just happened to have crossed paths with an apparently deranged man, who reached an entirely subjective conclusion that young Mr. Martin, an “A” and “B” high school student, simply had no right to be in that neighborhood at that time. It was simply the “luck of the draw” that his assailant, a man named George Zimmerman, whom the media has described as a “white Hispanic,” happened to be armed.
Much to my surprise, I, too, am coming down on the side of those who have said young Martin’s murder was not just about race. In the final analysis, it isn’t just about race, but it is, largely, about rampant handgun insanity. Or, maybe in honor of the New York Knicks’ point guard, we should call it “Gun-Sanity.”
What happened is about the absolute, free-wheeling, unchecked power of the National Rifle Association, and the inability and unwillingness of our elected officials to stand up to it.
On Friday, President Barack Obama, bowing to the growing media attention surrounding the murder of the young man, stepped forward in the White House Rose Garden and strengthened considerably a horribly weak statement on the subject that had been provided by his White House spokesman, Jay Carney, just two days earlier.
Some things the president said that morning made sense, such as when he pointed out: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” I can see that. It seemed a warm, natural and timely thing to say.
But, then again, there were parts of his statement that, unfortunately, came off like political gobbledygook, or “Newspeak,” from George Orwell’s “1984.” That was certainly the case when the President said, when pressed about whether race had played a role in the young man’s death, “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen — that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.”
Here was my reaction to that: While the president was saying those things, the TV stations should have run a series of sub-titles and translations, at the bottom of the screen, under his image, that said: “I know very well how this happened and I know how the laws that permit it to happen get on the books, in the first place. I know that it is the gun lobby that pressures me and other elected officials to pass laws that encourage greater sales of handguns. I am also absolutely certain that, with their campaign contributions and their threats of political revenge on election day, there is virtually no opposition to ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws or expanded ‘Castle Doctrine’ legislation, when they come up for a vote."
In 2005, Florida became the first state to expand a citizen’s right to use deadly force for self-defense. It expanded the definition of the legal right to use weapons for such self-defense, beyond the home, to “any other place where he or she has a right to be.” Over the past six years, 23 other states have expanded their “Castle Doctrines” to remove the necessity that the shooter first take a step back and retreat, before firing.
In the Pennsylvania General Assembly, last year, for example, the vote to expand the “Castle Doctrine” and to make that gun law look very much like “Stand Your Ground,” was carried 45-5 in the Senate, and 164-37, in the House.
Perhaps, not coincidentally, the FBI has reported that Americans set a new all-time record for gun-purchase-related instant background checks, in 2011, at 16.4 million, a 14.2 percent increase over 2010, the year in which the previous record was set.
As proof of the correlation between gun sales and relaxed gun laws, the National Rifle Association said the record number of gun sales, last year, could be attributed to the fact that more people said they need guns for self defense. According to one NRA spokeswoman, the surge of gun sales is also related to the national economic downturn, “…prisoners are being furloughed; police officers are being laid off.”
As further evidence of the chilling relationship between “Stand Your Ground” laws and gun sales, it should be noted that states with “Stand Your Ground” showed dramatic year-to-year gun sales increases, as compared to states without it.
Those sales have brought the number of civilian-owned guns in the country up to 270 million, or approximately 88.8 firearms per 100 people. Those figures rank the U.S. at number one among the 179 countries in the world, as to the rate of gun ownership. By comparison, China has 4.9 guns per 100 people, Pakistan has 11.6; Iran has 7.3; Germany has 30.3; Angola has 17.3; and South Africa has 12.7.
The exceptionally high rate of gun ownership in the U.S., has, not surprisingly, produced an average of 15,930 homicides, each year, from 2006 to 2010. The U.S. gun-related homicide rate at 10.3 per 100,000 population is substantially higher than the 6.3 in France, the 2.9 in Italy, the 1.6 in Germany, the .46 in England, the .24 in Singapore, and the .07 in Japan.
Can you spell "Wild, Wild West?"
It’s clear that the NRA, with 4 million card-carrying, gun-toting members who go to the polls, without fail, to vote for politicians who support their weapons-related agendas, and which donated more than $18 million to members of Congress over the past two decades (82 percent to Republicans) is a feared political force.
It appears, now, for example, that, with public support for gun controls having dropped, according to the Gallup polls, from 78 percent in 1990, to 44 percent, today, President Obama seems to have lost the will to speak the “truth” to the power of the NRA.
But, there’s a strong case that the solution to this problem extends beyond the lack of political will of the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branches of government. If we want to recognize the whole truth, we have to face up to the fact that the power to prevent future Trayvon Martin incidents resides within each of us.
If we want the prospect of future random killings to stop, Black folks are simply going to have to rekindle the flame that led us to “selective patronage” campaigns, strategic civil disobedience, targeted corporate boycotting and demonstrations. It’s my strong belief that someone other than us is going to have to feel discomfort and pain, before anything different will take place. We haven’t seen much of that in a long, long time. Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard, instead, lots of rhetoric, but not much in the way of action designed to make the private sector or high-ranking elected officials squirm. After all, this IS a presidential election year.
Here’s a warning: If Mr. Zimmerman, the so-called “white Hispanic,” is allowed to get away with what he so clearly did, with the blessing of “Stand Your Ground” and its supporters, we should not be surprised to see the Trayvon Martin incident replicated.
Talk is cheap. It’s time for action beyond things like the media-friendly “hoodie marches.” It’s also time, now, for our reasonable white and Hispanic friends to join in. They should know that they are not immune, either, to “Stand Your Ground” and its deadly implications.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.