14 Jul 2013

Good year for guns in America

The gun has had a good year in America. First even the most rudimentary attempts at limiting unfettered gun ownership were defeated by Congress despite the worst gun massacre in the civilian history of this country.

And now a Florida jury of six women has ruled that it is okay to shoot a teenager dead in self-defence, even if you have a whole range of options at your disposal before resorting to lethal force.

Shoot first

The case of George Zimmerman’s acquittal is another chilling version of that old cliche: shoot first, ask questions later.

The verdict has stunned one part of America just as it has reassured another. It will no doubt widen the racial chasm that persists despite the re-election of a black president.

It will make every black teenager with a hoodie walk more nervously down residential streets in Florida and the dozens of other states that allow similar “stand your ground” laws.

It will surely vindicate every self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer – why not call them vigilantes? – who carries a gun.

It is a very American story of crime, punishment and race. And yes I would not be alone in guessing that if the identities had been reversed, if the shooter has been called Martin and the shot Zimmerman, then this case may have had a different outcome.

Crime and punishment

This is an assumption that dares not speak its name but it is shared even by many who support Zimmerman’s claim of self-defence. It is an assumption that goes to the very heart of America’s stubborn defect of racism.

Statistics still show that a young black man is more likely to go to jail than to college. In the next few days this debate will be played out round the clock on cable TV. It may even play out nastily on the streets. Although I sincerely doubt that we will see a rerun of the 1992 LA riots after a group of LAPD officers were acquitted of assaulting a black man called Rodney King.

The mood is more resigned than angry today. There will also be some delicate moments for President Obama who took sides in the case and clearly identified with the victim by saying if  “I had a son he would have looked like Trayvon.”

And then there is the case itself. Here the broader debate about race, crime and punishment becomes a very narrowly focused question of reasonable doubt. And there was plenty of that.

‘Reasonable doubt’

The prosecution had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman pulled the trigger motivated by hatred and ill will. They had to prove that he hunted his prey with lethal intent. That is what a charge of second degree murder requires.

In the end they failed to make even the lesser case for manslaughter. Their star witness, Trayvon’s girlfriend, was unreliable under oath. The very eye-and-ear witnesses couldn’t corroborate the prosecution’s narrative. If anything they gave credence to the claim that Martin was pummeling Zimmerman on the ground, a version of events that was backed up by a ballistics expert.

And as the only survivor of the encounter it was Zimmerman’s word against the silence of the 17-year-old he had shot point blank in the heart.

In the absence of a video tape, a confession or indeed the right number of credible witnesses, the jury was left with too many questions about who threw the first punch, who said what and who pursued whom first.

In other words, there was plenty of reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was acting out of anything other than self defence.

That is the narrow question on which this case hinged. Don’t blame the jury. Blame the law, which favors the shooter and his gun.

Follow Matt Frei on Twitter.

Read more:

George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin

Obama fury as Senate votes down gun controls – video

Is the US ready for stricter gun control?

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