by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
March 29, 2012
TRAYVON MARTIN DID NOT HAVE TO DIE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Compared to the rest of the nation, Vermont's gun laws are pretty lax.
You don't need a permit to carry a handgun, there are no laws against the concealed carrying of firearms, and firearm ownership per capita is high.
At the same time, Vermont is also ranked as one of the safest states in America.
A paradox? Not really. In a state where deer season is still an unofficial state holiday, there is very little gun violence in Vermont in an average year.
But my adopted state seems to have a lot more sense than Florida, which in 2005 adopted an insane law known as "Stand Your Ground," which if a person is gravely threatened, in the home or "any other place where he or she has a right to be."
That law also gives legal immunity to a person who uses "deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Twenty other states, mostly in the South, have similar laws. But no one paid any attention to them until Trayvon Martin was gunned down in cold blood.
On the night of Feb. 26, the 17-year-old Martin was walking through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, when he was approached by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Neighborhood Watch captain.
Zimmerman, a Latino, had earlier called the police saying Martin looked suspicious, and that he was black. "We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy ... this guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something," he said.
It wasn't the first time he made a call like this to police. According to The Miami Herald, Zimmerman was a "habitual caller" to the police, making 46 calls since January 2011.
The police told Zimmerman not to follow Martin, and that they were sending a squad car to investigate.
He ignored that advice. It was clear that he was going to, judging by a tape of that call, where he is heard saying, "he's a black male. =8A Something's wrong with him. =8A "OK. These a-holes always get away. ... [Expletive], he's running."
Martin, a Miami resident, was visiting his father in Sanford that night, He had been watching the NBA All-Star Game, and decided to go a nearby convenience store during halftime to pick up a snack, On his back, he called his girlfriend and told her about a man that was following him.
"He said this man was watching him," the girl told ABC News. "So he put his hoodie on, said he lost the man. I asked Trayvon to run, and he said he was going to walk fast, I told him to run but he said was not going to run."
But the man would catch up to Martin.
"Trayvon said, 'What are you following me for?' and the man said, 'What are you doing here?' Next thing I hear is somebody pushing and somebody push Trayvon, because the headset just fell," she said. "I called him again and he didn't answer the phone."
Martin never answered the phone because Zimmerman shot him in the chest.
Zimmerman claimed that he did it in self-defense. Apparently, despite the fact that he was older and bigger than Brown, and was carrying a 9mm handgun, Zimmerman felt threatened by a black teenager in hooded sweatshirt, carrying a can of AriZona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles.
Martin had no criminal record. He was a high school student with a good academic record. He was a fairly typical kid. But to Zimmerman, he was a young black man in a hoodie who was in a place that young black men in hoodies shouldn't be.
Zimmernan has not been charged with any crime, because of the "Stand Your Ground" law, even though Martin was unarmed and felt equally afraid by a strange man who was was following him in an apparently threatening manner
While a toxicology test was done on Martin's body (which came up clean), no drug or alcohol test was administered to Zimmerman.
Yet Zimmerman still has the right to carry a firearm. And no serious effort was made by the Sanford Police to investigate the circumstances of his death.
The U.S. Justice Department and a Florida state attorney has taken up the investigation. A cursory glance at the record of what happened would lead one to believe that this was a deadly case of racial profiling; an innocent black teen was gunned down simply for being black and running into a fearful, paranoid man with a handgun.
This gets us back to the Vermont paradox, a place with lots of guns and little crime. One reason why is that while the state has a long tradition of respect for the right to bear arms, it doesn't make a fetish out of gun ownership.
Vermonters are not a fearful people, and don't feel a need to walk around with pistols in their belts. And even though concealed carry is legal, in more than two decades of living here, I've yet to run into anyone packing heat.
That lack of fear is why we don't let groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Rifle Association write our laws. These groups have little influence on the Vermont Legislature, but they have an outsized influence on other legislatures, like =46lorida's.
Lobbyists from ALEC and the NRA are behind what the two groups call the "Castle Doctrine," and developed laws that provide immunity to people who use deadly force to protect themselves. That's why 21 states have variations of this law on the books.
But it takes more than pressure politics and corrupt lobbyists to get this many states to adopt a law so odious. It's the pervasive stench of racism and fear of the other that makes paranoid people stock up on guns and ammo. It's the mindset that equates a young black man with a dangerous thug. It's the system that sends 1 in 8 black men in their 20s into prison.
"The fact is the U.S. often seems like it's built to kill black people," Kai Wright wrote on Colorlines.com this week. "This is not to say racism is equally lethal today as it was even a single generation ago. But it is to say that the same set of deeply ingrained ideas about what black people have coming to us justified the brutality of yesterday and today alike."
And so Trayvon Martin's name joins the sad roll call of young men like Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, another black man killed out of fear and stereotypes and simple racism. You can change the laws, and you can lock up guns, but it's going to be a lot tougher to change people's hearts.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.