Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Spencer Critchley Headshot

George Zimmerman Explodes the NRA Fantasy of the Armed Citizen

Posted: Updated:

It can be hard to tell how much of it is driven by cynicism and how much is honest paranoia, but there's no denying the commitment with which the NRA promotes the fantasy that an armed America is a safer America.

After all, the newsletter of the NRA's lobbying arm is called Armed Citizen. It promises that "While the anti-gun media doesn't want to report the truth about Americans using guns for self-defense as often as 2.5 million times a year, you can read breaking stories of everyday citizens fending off violent criminals."

(I'll set aside for now whether that "2.5 million times a year" figure is credible.* I don't think it is, and as you'll see, it's countered by many other, uncontroversial figures that paint a very different picture.)

The Armed Citizen vision of America is of a besieged populace defended only by their own guns. Recently we've been presented with an example of how that vision plays out in reality, in the person of our currently most famous armed citizen, George Zimmerman.

As Zimmerman's killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin so horribly demonstrates, far from making people safer, all too often a gun makes a bad situation much, much worse.

Accept for the moment Zimmerman's own account of the night of February 26, 2012: after he had followed Martin, Martin attacked and got the better of him, and, in fear for his life, he shot Martin in self-defense.

Zimmerman says that Martin reached for Zimmerman's gun. Since no one is claiming Martin set out that evening for anything other than Skittles and an iced tea -- certainly not to kill someone he'd never met before -- even if we believe Zimmerman's story, that story tells us that the presence of a gun helped turn a fist fight into a killing. Without the gun, the encounter might never have happened, since Zimmerman would have been a pistol's-worth less confident about getting out of his car and following Martin.

Of course, the prosecutor doesn't believe Zimmerman's account. He believes Zimmerman racially profiled, accosted, and needlessly shot Martin, with a hollow point bullet, through the heart.

But let's keep following the logic of the NRA. If citizens should be armed, then Martin should have had a gun, too. (The NRA argues for gun regulation lighter than that for cars, so presumably being 17 wouldn't be a barrier. In some states, it already isn't.) If we believe Zimmerman's claim that Martin was trying to kill him, Martin could have got it done quicker with a gun. Or maybe they could have had a shoot-out, in which case both might have been injured or killed.

Or Zimmerman could have just stayed in his car and waited for the police to arrive. That way no one was likely to end up dead -- because well-trained police officers try hard to avoid firing their guns on duty, and many of them never do.

Now let's take a step back and consider the crime Zimmerman thought was involved here. If Zimmerman's suspicion about Martin had been right, instead of wildly wrong, Martin would have been guilty of burglary.

Burglary is not punishable by death.

And yet Armed Citizen regularly celebrates the killing of burglars and other non-violent offenders. A couple of recent items:

Clerk defends convenience store from masked robber, The Times-Georgian, Carroll County, Ga. 06/26/13

A man armed with a gun and wearing a ski mask entered the Junior Food Store in Villa Rica, Ga. and demanded that the clerk on duty open the register. When the criminal's attention turned to the cash in the register, the clerk retrieved a gun and shot the criminal, killing him. Following the incident, the armed clerk received support from the community, with one customer referring to the store's employees as, "the nicest people you could want to meet." The clerk has not been charged.

Homeowner shoots non-compliant burglar, KDFW, Dallas, Texas 06/24/13, The Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas 06/24/13

An alarm installed in a tool shed alerted a homeowner in Dallas, Texas to a burglary in progress on his property. The homeowner retrieved a gun, went outside to the shed and ordered the criminal, who had been attempting to steal a weed eater, to stop where he was. When the burglar did not comply, the homeowner -- fearful for his own safety and that of his family -- fired, striking the criminal multiple times. Despite suffering from gunshot wounds, the burglar managed to hop a fence and flee a half-mile to his apartment. However, once there the criminal's family called 911 and he was discovered by authorities and taken to a local hospital. An investigation revealed that the criminal has a previous burglary conviction.

Armed Citizen makes for some ugly reading.

There are good reasons that police say you shouldn't fight an intruder unless you're convinced your life is in danger. Since few people have the training and emotional preparation for a real life fire fight, the intruder may well kill you or a family member first. Or, if you should prevail, you may end up killing someone for committing a crime that, while reprehensible, would only have cost you some money or property.

But what if your life really is threatened? In that case, yes, it could be good to have a gun. But carrying a gun for this reason is a lot like leaving your seat belt undone because you're betting on the rare chance you'll safely be thrown clear in a crash.

That's because it's much less likely that a gun will save you from an attack than that it will cost your or a loved one's life in a very different, but more common, crisis. That could be domestic violence, suicide, an accident or, as in the Zimmerman case, the fatal escalation of a confrontation.

These sad truths are documented by multiple widely accepted studies. As summarized (PDF) by the Children's Defense Fund:

A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide three times higher, suicide three to five times higher, and accidental death four times higher. For every time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defense, there are 11 completed and attempted gun suicides, seven criminal assaults and homicides with a gun, and four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.

As it happens, despite the NRA's best efforts, the number of Americans who own guns has been declining for decades. So have rates of violent crime, down dramatically from their peaks in the 1990s. By the NRA's logic they should be soaring, as so many of us render ourselves, supposedly, defenseless.

Furthermore, in the NRA's version of reality, violent crime never should have reached those extraordinarily high levels in the first place. As the most heavily armed of all the advanced Western democracies, America should have been the safest of them, instead of what it was: the most violent.

The NRA has come a long way from its original, useful mission of training people to use guns safely and responsibly. Since the 1990s it has aggressively inflated its definition of "safety" from the safe use of guns, to using guns to keep you safe. Safe, that is, from the threats hyped up by the NRA. Those "threats" now include not just criminals but, they claim, our own president, who, according to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, is engaged in a "conspiracy" against "all of what we know is good and right about America" (now that's some profiling).

It's a cycle of fear -- and rising gun sales, which, just possibly, are the point.

Caught up in the fear was armed citizen George Zimmerman, imagining that he was defending his community from a dangerous predator.

The true threat, of course, was not the "predator."

As Zimmerman showed, by killing a 17-year-old armed only with candy, the true threat was the fear itself.

*The claim of up to 2.5 million self-defense uses of guns per year is based on a controversial 1995 study by criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, widely cited by gun advocates. You can find an impartial overview of the Kleck-Gertz study here, and a trenchant critique by violence researcher David Hemenway here (PDF).