Opinion

Where's the Trayvon Martin petition about gun control?

Protesters back a petition to prosecute George Zimmerman for fatally shooting unarmed Trayvon Martin. We need to ask whether 'Stand Your Ground' measures make people trigger-happy. And we need to think about the most common victims of lax gun laws: African Americans.

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    Protesters Lakesha Hall of Sanford, center, and her son, Calvin Simms, right, gather early for a rally for Trayvon Martin at Fort Mellon Park in Sanford, Fla., March 22. Nearly 1.5 million people have signed an online petition for the prosecution of Trayvon's killer, George Zimmerman. The bigger issue is America's lax gun control laws, argues op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman.
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There’s a big cloud gathering, just beyond the horizon. It started a few weeks ago over Sanford, Fla. Now it’s everywhere, darkening with anger and outrage. You might even call it a storm cloud.

I’m referring to the burst of Tweeting, Facebooking, and other social networking to protest the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, captain of an informal neighborhood watch group, in Sanford on Feb. 26. Without the cloud, most of us wouldn’t know that Martin was African American, and Zimmerman isn’t. And far fewer people would be up in arms about it.

But I also fear that it might be clouding the real arms issue – that is, the problem of firearms. This tragedy is about race, of course, but it’s also about guns. And by focusing so heavily on the former, I fear, we’re blinding ourselves to the latter.

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Yes, we’ve heard criticism of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows citizens to use deadly force if they have reasonable fear of harm or death. And we’re sure to hear more debate over the next few weeks about whether Mr. Zimmerman, who says he acted in self defense, had any real reason to fear Trayvon Martin, who was carrying nothing more dangerous than iced tea and Skittles.

But if you look at the social-media protests about the event, almost none of them target Florida’s gun law itself. Signed by nearly 1.5 million people, the most popular online petition simply calls for charges to be filed against George Zimmerman.

Ditto for the loud public demonstrations unleashed by the furor on the Net. In New York, a “Million Hoodie March” echoed the petition’s demand for Zimmerman’s arrest. And in Florida, a protest urged state officials to withdraw his concealed weapons permit.

Got that? The problem isn’t that Florida lets people carry concealed weapons, or that it allows them to kill on questionable pretexts. Instead, it just let the wrong guy have a gun.

But we need to ask whether any private citizen should be carrying a concealed weapon, and whether “Stand Your Ground” measures make people trigger-happy. And most of all, we need to think about the most common victims of our lax gun laws: African Americans.

Nationwide, blacks are far more  likely to die from firearms than are white people. Not surprisingly, then, African Americans also favor gun control more than whites do. In a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, asking people whether it was more important to “protect gun rights” or “control gun ownership,” 53 percent of whites chose gun rights and 39 percent selected gun control.

Among African Americans, by contrast, just 27 percent deemed gun ownership rights more important; meanwhile, a whopping 64 percent called gun control the more important goal.

These numbers don’t sit well with the gun lobby, which has often suggested that strict gun control actually discriminates against racial minorities. Its evidence? Some of our earliest restrictions on guns barred African Americans from owning them.

That’s true. And it’s also irrelevant. Especially in the years right after the Civil War, racist whites strove to keep guns out of black hands. But it hardly follows that today’s gun-control laws are racist, or that African Americans would be safer if they armed themselves.

Ditto the irrelevancy of the often-cited facts that the militant Black Panthers protested California’s gun-control laws, and that even the famed pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. applied for a gun license in the late 1950s after his house was firebombed. Not surprisingly, the white-supremacist government in his native Alabama rejected the request.

But that same state racism was precisely the reason that King wanted a weapon. Today, 40 years after the civil rights revolution, it's hard to argue that our governmental institutions purposefully menace black Americans; indeed, we have a black American in the White House. The real danger to blacks lies in the private sphere – especially in gun-carrying citizens like George Zimmerman.

Because we share the same last name, I’ve received a barrage of emails asking if I’m related to Zimmerman. So far as I know, I’m not. But he and I live in the same nation, the United States of America, where it’s easier to get a gun than in almost any other developed country on earth. And racial minorities pay the highest price for that.

So I hope our Tweeters and Facebookers keep pressuring authorities in Florida and the US Department of Justice, which recently announced an investigation of the death of Trayvon Martin. We need to know what really happened in Sanford on Feb. 26, and nobody should rest until we do.

At the same time, though, I also hope social networkers will demand tighter controls on the purchase and use of firearms. As gun lobbyists like to say, guns don’t kill; people do. But people are more likely to kill if they have a gun, and black people are more likely to get killed as a result. We need a break in the cloud, to make room for that discussion.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory." 

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