When I was younger, I wrote multiple times per week in order to make sense of the difficult aspects of our world. I don’t write often anymore. Maybe as I get older I’m getting more jaded. Maybe I have buried my head in the sand because there is so much in our world that causes sadness and outrage. Maybe I’ve learned to focus on aspects of my life and our world that bring joy and peace of mind.
Try as I might, there are still times when I simply can’t look past an event. The last time this occurred was following the massacre in Newtown, Conn., when Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The act of using an assault weapon on five-year old children shocked and devastated our nation. While I and countless others weighed in on the broader societal and legal issues related to that event, there was no question of guilt. Lanza was a mass murderer.
Recently another major event involved a child being killed by an adult gunman. However, this time the question of guilt proved to be anything but certain.
On Feb. 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking to his father’s home in Sanford, Fla., with an iced tea and a package of candy. George Zimmerman, who was part of a neighborhood watch program, was sitting in his truck when he decided that Martin looked suspicious. Zimmerman called 911 and said that Martin was acting strangely, walking too slowly and that he was black. Zimmerman was told not to follow Martin and that police would be on the scene within minutes. Zimmerman ignored the instructions. He got out of his truck and followed and confronted Martin, who had done nothing wrong and had attempted to run away from the man in the truck who was staring at him. When a physical altercation broke out, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.
Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and he went on trial earlier this summer. His defense team said that he had killed the unarmed minor out of self-defense. The jury was given strict instructions based on Florida’s “stand your ground” gun laws, which allow for the use of deadly force even when peaceful retreat is possible if the armed individual is sufficiently frightened at the time of the shooting. On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges.
Shock and rage exploded through the black community and rippled through our nation. How could this be? Adults are now permitted to stalk and confront law-abiding children and then kill them if they resist? Isn’t it obvious that everything would have been different had it been a white kid who was simply walking home? Have politicians and the gun lobby perverted our Second Amendment and self-defense laws to the point that Trayvon Martin was somehow killed legally?
Zimmerman initiated a confrontation that he did not have the skills, knowledge or experience to manage. When he realized that he was in over his head, according to his defense team, he became scared. It was that fear, his lawyers argued, that made this a case of self-defense and eventually led to a “not guilty” verdict. The insanity of this argument and the fact that it worked should give us all pause. The outcome of this case indicated that we now live in a society that allows private citizens to legally carry a gun, initiate conflicts with children based on profiling and bias, and then use the gun to kill if the targeted person fights back.
Throughout Zimmerman’s trial there was a great deal of focus on his right to carry and use a concealed weapon. Somehow our twisted priorities allowed those concerns to overshadow a child’s most basic rights. Shouldn’t our children have the right to not be profiled? To walk home safely? Were Zimmerman’s gun rights more important than Trayvon Martin’s right to live?
As a society, we have lost our way in prioritizing and striking the right balance when it comes to our laws and our citizens’ rights. It is time to push back against the gun lobby and politicians who are passing laws that put our children at risk. I beg you to consider how it would feel if it had been your son killed by the laws of the state of Florida and the gun of George Zimmerman.
It should never be legal to murder a child.
Jonas Allen grew up in Orland and is a children’s mental health case manager who lives and works in Portland. He works with at-risk youths and specializes in supporting families with aggressive and unsafe children.