George Zimmerman helped a family in an overturned SUV today. It’s nice timing; he has been in hiding since his recent acquittal of the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin. It is a lucky piece of PR for Zimmerman, as tensions have been high. Some might even call it fishy. Zimmerman claims the killing was in self defense, and has been hiding because he is perceived as a vigilante. But “Stand-Your-Ground” precedents in Florida (and elsewhere) say that if you feel threatened, you can legally kill someone.

I heard the story as it broke on NPR in 2012. Amy Goodman played a call Zimmerman made right before the altercation. Someone suspicious had gotten into a gated community and Zimmerman, an off-duty neighborhood watch member, followed him. At one point there is a scuffling noise and someone begins yelling, “Help!”  Shortly after that, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, bled to death on the street.

The police gathered up Martin’s body and treated Zimmerman for minor injuries, questioned him for five hours, and let him go. Naturally, claims of racism abounded. At the time, before I knew anything about the case, all the focus on race kind of annoyed me. In my mind, whether Martin was black, white, or camouflage, Zimmerman had shot him to death and would surely go to jail.

So when he was acquitted and released, the public response was justifiable outrage. There appears no doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin. But the jurors—all female, five white and one black—were shackled by the same laws as the judge. Because of this cowboy logic in the state of Florida, Zimmerman is guilty of no crime.

So, protests broke out across the country. Obama spoke about Martin as though it could have been him thirty-five years ago. Now the media speculates that federal charges could be laid. People seem to wonder how laws can exist that let a killer free.

Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law says that a person can use reasonable means, up to and including lethal force, to protect oneself. The law also concedes that there is no obligation to attempt to avoid danger. It seems I can be out on the street in a bad neighborhood and walk right into danger, and if I feel threatened I can pull a gun on someone and shoot that person to death without trying to avoid doing so (of course, it has to be plausible that I am in real danger).

Neighborhood watch programs are part of the reason the stand-your-ground laws exist outside of the home. The strange thing about this arrangement is that a neighborhood watch in this case has no obligation to protect the neighborhood peaceably and avoid situations like these. Theoretically, a neighborhood watch program could easily become a vigilante group.

Unfortunately, racial profiling has become a tolerable practice in our society, employed by border patrols, airport security, and street cops, and there seems to be no getting away from it. The sad part is that profiling anyone is a simple generalization, requiring no reasonable evidence of culpability before so-called defensive actions can be taken. This concoction of rights seems so precarious, and if the stakes weren’t so high these days (i.e. nuclear terrorism), few people in their right mind would stand for it.

According to State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, Zimmerman is not a criminal. But thanks to an over-indulgence in news coverage, I know what George Zimmerman looks like and where he lives. If I were a citizen of Florida, I would truly feel threatened if I saw Zimmerman on the street. This is not because of profiling, but because of facts (specifically, the fact that he recently killed someone and got away with it).

Hasn’t this slippery, highly-publicized case shown how easy it might be to manufacture a scenario where a recently acquitted killer is shot “in self-defense”? I emphatically hope this doesn’t happen, but if people fail to look at the underlying stand-your-ground laws the way they fail to look at ridiculous gun laws, it is conceivable we could see a string of legal killings in retaliation. The whole point of these laws is to protect such actions.

Laws like this protect a cowboy ideology where “heroes” can shoot first and ask questions later. Of course, after the U.S.A.’s heroic, preemptive war on terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction”, should anyone be surprised that these laws apply to individuals as well?

[P.S. I’m not saying I’m completely and utterly against these laws. The issues are not that cut and dry, unfortunately, and I would much rather sit back and complain that actually try to craft the laws that protect everyone equally.]

Human Stupidity

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA says “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This sounds pretty straightforward, almost a self-evident truth. It’s a clever statement for simple minds; the sentence says one thing, and conceals its true agenda. The presumption is that bad guys will always have easy access to guns. The NRA and Republicans in the U.S. are doing all they can to make sure of it.

I’m not saying LaPierre is clever. He might be, but what’s more likely is he truly believes in his cause, is afraid his constitutional rights are in danger, and is negligent of the facts. While actively supporting and promoting gun culture, when children were massacred in Newtown the NRA’s first statement was a condemnation of the entertainment industries for promoting violent content.

We should assume from their reasoning that before video games and movies, there was very little violent crime. When Caesar invaded Gaul it’s thought there were over one million casualties and another million people taken into slavery. And that’s people hacked to pieces by swords, not dispatched with the clinical precision of drones or guns. So what precipitated that violence? To be fair, the graffiti on Roman buildings was probably pretty racy. Get real.

It reminds me of these ridiculous controversies about movies being too sexy. Sexual deviance does not exist because of pornography, it is exactly the other way around. Movies and music videos continue to get more explicit, and this shocks the older generation, but it is completely natural. As entertainment and arts continue to show us our humanity in new forms, we should always expect there to be fringes where the boundaries of decency are pushed. There will always be violent art because art draws from and expands the human experience. And while I’ve seen movies that are way too violent, I’ve still never seen a movie that’s too sexy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll radically change human behavior any time soon. Let’s assume there will always be maniacs out there. We can’t lock every nut up preemptively, but we can make certain behaviors difficult. That’s why there are laws. Can anyone tell me why background checks for gun ownership is a bad idea? 80% of Americans think it’s a good idea, including many NRA members, yet the government can’t get it together to do the will of the people.

If you’re a government official and you intentionally stand in the way of the will of the people, plus you’re a pimp for gun manufacturers and completely lack a conscience, you should be thrown out on your ass and kept far away from any policy-makers. This seems very obvious to me, but I haven’t heard anyone take it seriously. It seems that in government broad change is nearly impossible without a bloody revolution.

Maybe that’s what the NRA and Republicans are after. They make their money by selling guns, after all, and what better tool for a bloody revolution? The NRA has given $80 million to politicians to keep the sale of guns as easy as possible. And while gun casualties continue to mount in heartbreaking numbers, the NRA continue their rhetoric about freedom, lashing out like a jock whose manliness is in question.

Well, I don’t question the manliness of the NRA or gun lovers. But I also realize that manliness isn’t something that matters in the grand scheme of things. Intelligence, on the other hand, definitely matters. If there is a revolution, I hope it’s one that stands up and says, “It’s not okay to be stupid.” Kudos to those already fighting that fight.

Guns vs. Cigarettes

With the Newton massacre fresh on everyone’s mind, people are watching Obama’s White House to see if any meaningful gun control measures can be put into place. But gun enthusiasm is still far too entrenched within the American Dream to make things easy. I wonder how change will get made. A hundred and twenty years ago heroin was prescribed by doctors regularly. Now it is illegal and there is a war on drugs. At some point something has to give.

The government takes very seriously it’s role of protecting people from themselves. From unemployment insurance to strict prohibition on many types of drugs, our governments try to make us feel like they politicize our best interests. But even with all the knowledge we have about the harmful effects of cigarettes, they are still available in every corner store. Yet again, ideology and entrenched business trumps public safety.

I don’t believe guns or cigarettes should be strictly illegal. I don’t even think heroin should be illegal. The fact that heroin is illegal doesn’t prevent heroin usage, it only makes that usage more dangerous. This could be an argument against outlawing guns and cigarettes. If something is dangerous but useful there are ways of ensuring the users are qualified. Enhanced background checks would be a step in the right direction for gun use, but it definitely would not end gun violence. Most of us climb into a car, fully licensed, and blast down a highway at 120 km/h without batting an eye, even though it is a terribly dangerous activity. And people die in car crashes every day.

We can’t say in a scientifically definitive way how many lives are lost from cigarettes. And you can’t weigh how many lives are taken by guns against how many lives are saved. Statistics do not tell the full story; the figures are fuzzy approximations at best. Nor can we get the full story from news programs who love the sensational boost in ratings when horrible tragedy strikes.

The NRA’s first statement after the Newtown shooting said nothing about guns, but condemned television, film, and video games for perpetuating virtual violence. It said exactly nothing, but implied the Second Amendment is more important than the First. Their goal is to maintain and increase their membership (less than 2% of America’s population) and to sell more guns. They do this under the guise of protecting American rights.

The issue is personal freedom, and it is the government who decides how much freedom its people have in society. We can drive a car, fire a gun, smoke a million cigarettes, but we cannot do cocaine or pay for sex. Judge these rules how you will but consider if we have reason enough to trust the government’s judgement on socially acceptable behavior.

Lawyers and financial experts bilked the world out of billions in a technically legal way. Legal drugs kill more people than illegal drugs. The USA, under the latest Bush administration, started two illegal wars in the Middle East and gave the rebuilding contracts to associates of Bush and Cheney.

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” – Thomas Paine

A clear-cut solution would be great, but it is impossible. We live in a world of stifled political action, bombarded by arguments on all sides and in all forms of media. It seems to be an unfortunate fact that any large group will have an asshole in it, and we can’t protect ourselves from the inevitability of chaos.

Of course the world could do just fine without guns and cigarettes. But because I know many resilient smokers, and I know that non-lethal weapons could be used by law enforcement, I choose cigarettes over guns. A cigarette, for the most part, is something we choose to use on ourselves, and I believe we should all have the right to physiological self-sovereignty. But a gun is something to be used on others, generally without their consent. A lot more people are losing their personal freedom to guns than to cigarettes.