The tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin have been understandably polarized around issues of racism, racial profiling and inequities inherent in the American criminal justice system. Yet one issue that should concern all Americans of every color, creed and religion are the unbridled gun laws and powerful gun lobby which have aided in the creation of an increasingly violent society.
At the heart of the Martin case is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which offers immunity to anyone who uses deadly force if they demonstrate a reasonable fear their life was under threat and in danger of imminent harm. More than 20 similar laws have been passed by state legislatures across the country in the past few years. According to the New York Times, these laws have been almost unanimously crafted courtesy of the NRA, which works closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing advocacy group.
It is likely that George Zimmerman will not receive immunity, considering Trayvon Martin had a right to be where he was, and, as the affidavit states, Zimmerman “profiled,” followed and “confronted” the teenager — making a Stand Your Ground defense counter-intuitive.
But the very nature of these laws has drawn scrutiny from citizens and public policy makers alike, sparking a national debate about ever-expanding gun rights, and ever-shrinking protections for victims of gun violence.
In a 2007 report by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys who opposed Stand Your Ground legislation, prosecutors warned of the very dangers manifested in the Trayvon Martin tragedy. “Although the spirit of the law may be to allow the public to feel safer, the expansions may instead create a sense of fear from others, particularly strangers.”
The report concluded enactment would have a “disproportionately negative effect on minorities, persons from lower socio-economic status, and young adults/juveniles” who are too often unfairly stereotyped as suspects.
It turns out they were right.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida experienced an average of 34 “justifiable homicides” before 2005, but just two years after the stand-your-ground law was enacted, that number jumped to more than 100. Similar increases have been recorded in other states.
According to analysis of FBI data done by the office of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chairs ‘Mayors Against Illegal Guns,’ districts that have implemented stand-your-ground laws saw a 53.5 percent increase in “justifiable homicides” in only three years.
In a speech before the National Press Club last week Bloomberg said, “In reality, the NRA’s leaders weren’t interested in public safety. They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it. Let’s call that by its real name: vigilantism.” The mayor concluded, “The strongest law of all is one that is never on the books, and that is the law of unintended consequences. Stand Your Ground laws prove that that’s true.”
Bloomberg has literally become an independent voice of reason in his criticism of the NRA and the American gun lobby at large. Bloomberg offers a lone voice in what seems to be a vacuum of failure by state governments, Congress and even the White House to counter-act what is an obvious aggressive push to weaken gun regulation and make enormous profits — the unintended consequences of which is unbridled violence and loss of innocent lives.
While Bloomberg demonstrates leadership on this issue, President Barack Obama has proven far too silent, choosing rhetoric instead of action, and a passive adherence to the status quo.
Following the deadly January 2011 shootings in Tucson, Arizona, which nearly took the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, President Obama called for a national conversation on gun violence. “When a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations — to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system.”
The president concluded, “We owe the victims of the tragedy in Tucson and the countless unheralded tragedies each year, nothing less than our best efforts – to seek consensus, to prevent future bloodshed, to forge a nation worthy of our children’s futures.”
Yet despite a call for an end to the bloodshed, Obama did not lay out new policy initiatives for gun control. Even former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a lifelong Democrat and now NBC News political contributor, criticized the president for failing to address gun-control in the State of the Union Speech, just two weeks after the Tucson massacre.
And in 2010, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave President Obama an “F” grade for his failure to promote legislation limiting access to firearms.
In fact, despite constant GOP attacks on the president as being anti-guns, Obama has actually signed legislation expanding gun rights — specifically the ability to carry in national parks and wild reserves. This makes Obama far friendlier to Second Amendment rights than even his liberal base would like.
Of course this culture of appeasement to America’s gun lobby is widespread — dating back well before Obama’s tenure — and entrenched across party lines. Republicans largely use gun rights as a metaphor for constitutional freedom and a rallying cry for states’ rights. Democrats wait for tragedies to occur before demanding stringent policies which are hardly ever passed and enacted. What they both ignore is the ever present danger that lack of gun control unleashes on a supposedly free society.
But the financial and political clout of the NRA and their allies, means that even a progressive president like Obama is reticent to oppose them or their interests.
E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post explained yesterday that Republicans, “pretend President Obama, a disappointment to many who support more rational gun laws… is a threat to gun laws. He most assuredly is not. Yet Mitt Romney, who once supported gun-control measures, tried to Etch-a-Sketch that past away before the NRA Friday, pledging to defend rights he claimed the president “ignores or minimizes.”
Dionne reveals the corruption at the heart of power the NRA wields over our political elite. Instead of confronting the need for greater safety protections, presidents and those who seek the office, are silent at best and apathetic at worst.
Perhaps the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and the president’s acknowledgement that the slain teen could well have been his own son, will inspire Obama to stand his ground against the American gun lobby.