03/28/2012 11:31 am ET Updated May 28, 2012

The 'Good-Guy-Bad-Guy' Myth Laid Bare

America has at last been made painfully aware of the sweeping adoption, and consequences, of "stand your ground" laws. Now on the books in roughly half of the states, these laws allow citizens to meet force with force when threatened in public places, replacing the long-preferred option of safe retreat. Most of these state measures have been adopted since Florida led the way in 2005, thanks to the relentless and effective efforts of the National Rifle Association.

And why not? Shouldn't law-abiding citizens be able to protect themselves from predators, whether at home or in the public? As the NRA said in a letter to its members in 2010, why shouldn't the full weight of the law be "on the side of the victims, not their criminal attackers"? As a state legislator in Wisconsin argued earlier this year, "One of the fundamental rights we all have as American citizens is the right to defend ourselves and families from a criminal that could harm us." Outside of the heat of the Trayvon Martin case, this sounds like a not-unreasonable argument. But if something that sounded reasonable were always reasonable, the NRA would be the angelic voice of sweet moderation.

Underlying this "criminals versus honest citizens" rhetoric are two simple, contrary realities: First, the world does not divide up nicely into good guys and bad guys; and second, even good guys make bad decisions that can too easily become lethal when a gun is involved. No clearer illustration of both of these realities is found than in the confrontation, however it occurred, between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman on a gated-community street on Feb. 26.

By all accounts, the man who shot and killed an unarmed seventeen-year-old was known to be respectful, religious, and helpful to others. Even if one doubts George Zimmerman's father's description of his son as "the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever," it is not just plausible, but likely, that George Zimmerman is a fundamentally decent, law-abiding, caring citizen who joined his Sanford, Fla. neighborhood watch group out of noble motives. But that's the point: In the real world of interpersonal confrontation, neither actor may be a bad guy -- or maybe both are.

That is one good reason why neighborhood watch groups are trained at "being the eyes and ears" for the police, and why the use of a gun, according to the Sanford Police Department's neighborhood watch coordinator, is (or should be) out of the question. The other reason is that a split-second judgment in a real life confrontation bears little resemblance to shooting at a cardboard target, or to the plot line of a typical crime melodrama.

Aside from the military, the category of Americans most closely trained in the carrying and use of firearms is law enforcement. Skill, judgment and accuracy are placed at a premium. Yet in a study of New York City police officer line-of-duty firearm discharges when the target was a person, officers reportedly hit their intended targets 28 percent of the time in 2006, and 17 percent of the time in 2005. When all police shootings were examined, including those against people, animals, and other situations, the accuracy rate rose to 34 percent. Why so many misses? Police officials said the explanation is the "tense and unpredictable nature" of such situations. Sounds like real life.

As the recording of Zimmerman's 911 call makes clear, he was nervous. Michael Smerconish described it this way: "After he departs from his truck to pursue Martin, Zimmerman's breathing is audibly labored." Zimmerman stood his ground; maybe Martin did, too.

Stand your ground laws not only encourage, but countenance, the very kind of confrontation that occurred between Martin and Zimmerman. They dial up uncertainty, magnify miscalculation and then excuse ensuing mayhem. Anyone who thinks that this improves society is living in a fantasy world.