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Patricia McGuire

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No Country for Kids in Hoodies

Posted: 03/28/2012 12:43 pm

Leave it to Geraldo to give us the most disturbingly absurd commentary on the tragedy of this moment: "His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did," is the TV oracle's finding of mens rea (legalese for guilty intent) in this sad case.

Guns don't kill people; hoodies kill people.

Perhaps such outlandish commentary is a defense mechanism against the horror of what really happened in that gated community in Florida; perhaps we need some logical explanation, no matter how bizarre, because the reality is possibly more terrifying than we want to admit: the law in the state of Florida and 20 other states now gives people the right to shoot other people upon perceiving threats. We cannot believe that the law requires no evidence to prove the threat, no review of the facts leading up to the shooting, no possible other angles of vision to suggest that "standing your ground" might not have been necessary. We may cling to the hoodie like some kind of security blanket because we want to believe that there was, in fact, something wrong that warranted Trayvon's death.

This is no country for kids wearing hoodies.

The death of Trayvon Martin is the appallingly logical conclusion of a legal system gone mad, of an indefensible law that permits the killing of defenseless people upon a perceived threat. Where is the pro-life movement when we need them? Why hasn't every religious leader in the nation mounted the pulpit this weekend to denounce the law that permitted this child to die clutching his Skittles?

The right to life is an empty promise in a nation that venerates guns more than the peace and safety of the community. Guns have been at the center of every major murderous rampage in schools, colleges and universities for the last three decades. As a university president with a grave legal and moral responsibility to keep my students safe, I deplore the cowardice of lawmakers who cave in repeatedly to the gun lobby. No amount of security is enough when a person with a gun is on the loose.

The Children's Defense Fund has just published a stunning report on the consequences of guns for children in this nation. Among many other things, the report offers this startling data:

116,385 children and teens were killed by firearms between 1979 and 2009 -- enough to fill 4,655 public school classrooms of 25 students each. Since 1979, America has lost nearly three times as many children and teens to gunfire as the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action during the Vietnam War, and over 23 times the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan (5,013).
5,740 children were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009 alone, a statistic that leads CDF President Marian Wright Edelman to cry out, "Where's the outrage?

Former Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney wrote an eye-opening piece on March 23 in the New York Times, "Florida's Disastrous Self-Defense Law," in which he notes that he and other police chiefs in Florida actively opposed adoption of the "stand your ground" law. He goes on to note how even well-trained law enforcement personnel must receive continuous training and guidance on when to use weapons. But not so for citizens, who may shoot whenever they feel threatened according to the law.

Timoney writes,

Police officers are trained to de-escalate highly charged encounters with aggressive people, using deadly force as a last resort. Citizens, on the other hand, may act from emotion and perceived threats. But "stand your ground" gives citizens the right to use force in public if they feel threatened. As the law emphatically states, a citizen has 'no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground.'

During one debate, one of the law's proponents suggested that if a citizen felt threatened in a public space, he should not have to retreat and should be able to meet force with force. I pointed out that citizens feel threatened all the time, whether it's from the approach of an aggressive panhandler or squeegee pest or even just walking down a poorly lighted street at night. In tightly congested urban areas, public encounters can be threatening; a look, a physical bump, a leer, someone you think may be following you. This is part of urban life. You learn to navigate threatening settings without resorting to force. Retreating is always the best option.

A nation that allows people to be armed to the teeth, to "stand their ground" and shoot at whomever they feel may threaten them, will spend a long time washing blood off the sidewalks. Not only will the so-called "defensive" killings mount over time, but retribution will also rise. Already, the New Black Panthers have offered a bounty for the capture of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin, because the law apparently provides no adequate recourse.

The utter shame of this political season is the craven way in which major politicians pander to the most extreme corners of the electorate. An old, cynical saying is that "People get the government they deserve." Trayvon Martin was not old enough to vote. He didn't deserve the government whose laws not only failed to protect him, but that, in fact, allowed him to be shot as he walked home from the store.

Guns do kill people. Our lawmakers should have the guts to "stand your ground" and stare down the gun lobby. Protecting the community from the harm that lurks within it is not a job for vigilantes; protecting the people so that we may enjoy life, liberty and happiness is the essential role of government everywhere.

The "stand your ground" law in Florida abrogates the responsibility of government entirely; as long as government defaults on this most essential responsibility, more people will die at the hands of self-appointed "enforcers" using their own destructive filters --- race, dress, language, location --- to determine who is a threat to the community.

 

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