George Zimmerman stands accused — by almost everyone except the law-enforcement professionals of Sanford, Fla. — of chasing down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and fatally shooting him on Feb. 26. And though Martin was doing nothing wrong, though he tried to flee, and though a police dispatcher told Zimmerman to back off ... Zimmerman has cited Florida's "stand your ground" law to claim the shooting was justified.
Florida law permits the use of deadly force if a shooter "reasonably believes it is necessary" to protect oneself, and Zimmerman says Martin jumped him after Zimmerman abandoned the chase. And maybe we shouldn't be surprised to hear the law cited by a man who went chasing after trouble despite being urged not to. Because if gun owners weren't jumping at shadows, "stand your ground" — or a similar law in Pennsylvania — might not exist at all.
Pennsylvania passed its "stand your ground" measure last year, and the first casualty was honest debate. Politicians referred to HB 40 as "the Castle Doctrine" ... as if it was all about home defense. In fact, Pennsylvania already had a "Castle Doctrine" asserting the right to use deadly force against intruders. HB 40 extended that right to anywhere a gun-owner has "a right to be" ... in the castle, across the moat, or down in the village among the serfs and minstrels.
Was such a bill necessary? After Martin's death, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Amy Worden, who covered the HB 40 debate, tweeted that the measure "passed w/out a single example of a problem."
Well, sure ... if by "example" you mean "something that has actually happened." But for all its blue-steel swagger, the gun-rights movement lives in perpetual fear of threats the rest of us have difficulty seeing
During a rally for HB 40 last May, for example, Larry Pratt, of the Gun Owners of America, maintained that today's students were being "taught to fear the Bill of Rights and to kneel down before the ruling class." Did you miss that day in civics class? Then try state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe's claim that HB 40 will protect us from "prosecution that might possibly come from some rogue DA."
The threat of rogue DAs, sadly, hasn't prompted Republicans to abandon the death penalty. But where gun owners' fears are concerned, the GOP will oppose even the forces of law and order.
Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, says prosecutors are wary of HB 40, partly because of what they heard about the impact of Florida's law. Prosecutors there "told us they were seeing an increase in deadly force in questionable scenarios," Long says. Martin's shooting, he adds, "brought one of those concerns to life."
At least Pennsylvania's law isn't as extreme as Florida's. For one thing, an assailant must be wielding a lethal weapon — a baseball bat will do — for shooting him to be justified. A threat can't exist solely in a gun-owner's mind: Shooting someone still requires a stronger factual basis than, say, passing legislation.
Good thing, because some gun-owners seem to have difficulty recognizing legitimate threats. As Barack Obama gears up his re-election bid, gun sales are rising — just as they did after he was first elected. As one gun-shop owner recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "People are terrified he's going to get re-elected and then he won't care about getting votes next time."
Obama's only notable gun initiative has been making it easier to carry firearms in national parks. Yet like George Zimmerman on patrol, some gun-rights absolutists seem to think that backing away is just another form of suspicious behavior. So they're taking the fight to us.
Metcalfe and others are now drawing beads on local ordinances, passed in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, requiring gun-owners to tell police when their firearms are lost or stolen. (Supporters say the bill will help crack down on those who wrongfully sell guns to criminals.) The bill doesn't take anyone's guns away; it merely requires notifying police when someone else does. Yet Metcalfe insists such ordinances "leave law-abiding citizens disarmed and defenseless against violent intruders."
This is politics, Zimmerman-style. Facing no immediate threat, gun-rights extremists are chasing bogeymen down the street and into alleyways ... and then opening fire. All in the name of self-defense.