‘A recipe for disaster’

    It’s no mystery why politicians in both parties have remained so reticent about the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin – and, most notably, about the fact that the citizen shooter has gotten off scot free.

    The pols know the first commandment of politicking in America: Thou Shalt Not Tick Off The National Rifle Association.George Zimmerman, the Florida crime watch volunteer who killed a kid armed only with iced tea and Skittles, remains free today, never arrested and never charged, thanks to a groundbreaking state measure championed by the NRA. Seven years ago, the gun lobby – in cahoots with conservative special interests and retailers who profit from gun sales – muscled a compliant Republican legislature into enacting a “Stand Your Ground” law that vastly expands the concept of self-defense. As a result, any armed citizen who feels threatened in a public place can simply blast away, and not be held accountable. Mindful of this law, police don’t arrest and prosecutors don’t charge. Florida was the perfect laboratory for this new concept, because it’s a place where buying a gun isn’t much tougher than purchasing a pack of Skittles. Meanwhile, the NRA and its allies have since gone nationwide with Stand Your Ground, goading roughly 20 other states to enact similar Wild West laws.To understand why these laws are insane, I’ll yield the floor to John Timoney, the former Philadelphia police commissioner and former Miami police chief, who addressed it last week in a New York Times guest column. Cops and prosecutors hate Stand Your Ground; that fact alone should give pause to anyone who might be tempted to jerk his knee for the NRA.Here’s Timoney: “Trying to control shootings by members of a well-trained and disciplined police department is a daunting enough task. Laws like ‘stand your ground’ give citizens unfettered power and discretion with no accountability. It is a recipe for disaster.”Timoney, as Miami chief, lobbied against the Florida law prior to passage. As he wrote last week, “I pointed out at the time that even a police officer is held to account for every single bullet he or she discharges. So why should a private citizen be given more rights when it came to using deadly physical force?…The only thing that is worse than a bad law is an unnecessary law.”Timoney has seen the disaster play out. Zimmerman – who told a police dispatcher that Martin seemed suspicious (Martin was walking back to a house where his dad was watching basketball), and who then ignored the dispatcher’s advice to back off and wait for the cops to show up – is merely the latest Floridian to benefit from Stand Your Ground. Gang members got off, thanks to that law, after a public shooting incident that killed a 15-year-old bystander. A former sheriff’s deputy shot and killed an unarmed homeless man who had aggressively asked for money. A guy toting a gun in a public park, in the midst of a dispute with an unarmed stranger over skateboarding rules, shot and killed the unarmed stranger – because, supposedly, the shooter felt threatened. The victim died in front of his 10-year-old daughter.All told, the annual tally of citizen shooters claiming self defense has tripled since Stand Your Grand was enacted. Prosecutors have complained for a long time, but nobody listened. Just weeks before Martin was tracked and killed (“He’s right behind me again,” he told his girlfriend, referring to Zimmerman), former Broward County prosecutor David Frankel told the Orlando Sun Sentinel that the law “is an abomination. The ultimate intent might be good, but, in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot.”The law tips the scales toward the shooter, which means that it’s great for Zimmerman. The guy with the gun is still alive, so he gets to retail his version of what happened. The victim has no way to contest that version, because he’s already dead.So even if politicians remain reluctant to touch the racial dimensions of this case – thankfully, ex-Republican politician Joe Scarborough says, “If you don’t believe that this case and the handling of this case by the people of Florida has nothing to do with race, you are living in a fantasy world” – they should at least have the guts to address the underlying folly of allowing armed citizens to run rampant. If top cops like Timoney say these laws are nuts, that alone should give the politicians sufficient cover.But no. It’s the NRA’s world, and the pols only live in it.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.