When the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre finally spoke out about the Trayvon Martin shooting, it was to decry the media's coverage of the tragedy as "sensational reporting from Florida." It's understandable that the NRA would be uncomfortable with the intense media attention to this particular shooting tragedy.
For one thing, the shooting has thrown a spotlight on the real-world impact of the "Shoot First, Ask Questions Later" (aka "Stand Your Ground") laws the NRA has pushed in Florida and other states across the country that are allowing dangerous individuals to literally "get away with murder." But the NRA's discomfort has even deeper roots. In a real sense, Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman exposes the mythology of the NRA's core narrative about guns and self-defense.
The NRA has a wonderfully simple story to tell. In the NRA's world, people are neatly divided into two readily identifiable groups: good guys and bad guys. In this imaginary world, we know that legal carriers of guns must be good guys and that good guys use their guns only in legitimate self-defense -- that's what makes them good guys in the first place. The Trayvon Martin tragedy reveals the real world to be far more complicated.
The gun lobby often cites surveys purporting to establish that good guys defend themselves with guns millions of times every year. One survey repeatedly cited by the NRA asked "have you yourself, or another member of your household used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection"? Of course, after he shot Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, a legal concealed carrier under Florida's weak gun laws, would have answered this question, "Yes".
The survey would not have revealed that Zimmerman could have avoided any risk of confrontation with Trayvon Martin had he followed the suggestion of a police dispatcher to stop following Martin and instead left it to the police to investigate Zimmerman's report of a "suspicious" person. It would not have revealed that Zimmerman armed himself for his neighborhood watch duties in violation of the neighborhood watch guidelines that members "shall not carry weapons." Nor would it have revealed that Trayvon Martin was armed only with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea at the time Zimmerman shot him dead. The Trayvon Martin shooting demonstrates that relying on a person's claim of self-defense is folly, in part because the person's own aggressive behavior may have caused the confrontation in the first place. Indeed, in prison surveys, over 60 percent of convicted felons who have fired a gun claim to have done so in self-defense.
Some years ago, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health designed, conducted and analyzed two telephone surveys asking about defensive uses of guns. Instead of simply accepting the respondents' claims of legitimate self-defense, the researchers asked extensive follow-up questions. Summaries of the incidents were then submitted to a panel of criminal court judges who were asked to give their opinions as to the legality of the claimed self-defense use of the gun.
Even though the only "evidence" submitted was the self-serving accounts of the shooters, of the incidents in which descriptions of the incident were provided, over half were rated as probably illegal by a majority of the judges. The Harvard researchers also found over two thirds of the self-defense gun incidents were reported by only six respondents, with three respondents claiming fifty, twenty and fifteen self-defense uses of guns each within the previous five years. Clearly there were more than a few "make my day" defensive gun uses being counted. Somewhat understating the matter, the Harvard research team observed that "many reported self defense gun uses from a respondent creates a suspicion that the uses may be aggressive rather than defensive."
There also is a body of research showing that people who carry guns with them are disproportionately likely to be aggressive. A Harvard study of Arizona drivers found that, compared to other Arizona drivers, drivers who carried a gun in their car were three times as likely to have engaged in rude, hostile and illegal driving. Indeed, the more often a driver carried a gun, the greater the likelihood that the driver would engage in such "road rage" conduct as making obscene gestures, cursing, tailgating or blocking other drivers. Yet another study, done at the national level, similarly found that "riding with a firearm in the vehicle appears to be a marker for aggressive and dangerous driver behavior." Gun owners who drive or ride in cars with loaded guns also are four times as likely to drink and drive as were people who did not own guns.
Nor does having a gun make someone safer; in fact just the opposite appears to be true. A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that individuals in possession of a gun were 4-5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession of a gun. The researchers suggest several possible reasons for this result, including the fact that "a gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact and instigate conflicts" or to increase their risk of assault by entering dangerous environments that could have been avoided.
This is not to deny that some gun carriers take their responsibilities seriously. Nor is it to deny that guns can be used successfully in self-defense. But, according to the FBI, of the approximately 11,000 gun homicides every year, on average less than 300 are justifiable self-defense killings. The research tells us that what is happening in the real world bears no resemblance to the NRA's imaginary world. In the real world, far too many gun toters are prone to be aggressive, are "looking for trouble," and claim to have used their guns in self-defense, when in fact they have irresponsibly used their guns in public places.
The research tells us, in short, that there are far too many George Zimmermans on our streets, posing a risk to others and themselves. This is a direct result of our nation's gun laws which, at the behest of the gun lobby, make it easy for dangerous people to legally carry guns in public, make it legal for them to carry guns virtually everywhere, and then protect them when they misuse their guns under the guise of self-defense.
As compelling as the research is, the Trayvon Martin shooting makes far more real the danger of continuing to allow the NRA to foist its imaginary world on the rest of us. For most Americans, George Zimmerman has become the face of concealed carry. And, for most Americans, the NRA's "guns everywhere" vision of America has become, more plainly than ever, a nightmare.
Dennis Henigan is Vice President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the author of Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy(Potomac Books 2009).