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Walter Rodgers

Florida-style 'Stand Your Ground' gun laws sub impulse for intelligent thinking

Even as George Zimmerman stands trial for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, many Americans argue these laws make us safe. I've had pistols held to my head from Bosnia to Beirut. Your best self-defense is your tongue. Those who put their faith in guns will ultimately be outgunned.

By Walter Rodgers / April 30, 2012

Walter Rodgers, pictured here in Boston in September 2007, says in his final column: 'Americans’ faith in guns is sorely misplaced. Ultimately, they encourage fear and fantasy, and they leave everyone more insecure.'

Joy Cusack

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Because this is my last column, I want to challenge a deeply held belief that is, tragically, a core one for millions of Americans. [See editor's note at the end of this column.]

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One of the most common ideas emerging after the Trayvon Martin tragedy with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is that guns make you safe. My experience is exactly the opposite.

Handguns like the one George Zimmerman used to shoot and kill the African-American teenager merely enable those who use them to make fatal mistakes. Mr. Zimmerman is now out of prison on bail, awaiting trial for second-degree murder, when a $20 can of pepper spray could have possibly defused the confrontation without loss of life.

As a reporter who spent much of a 40-year career covering wars, crime, and prisons, I’ve learned that your best weapon of self-defense is your tongue. Rarely does one find oneself in a confrontation that can’t be talked out of, and where having a gun would have made things safer.

Just after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and several American cities rioted and even burned, I was interviewing African-Americans in Atlanta about a block from King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

A large black man, big enough to play linebacker for the Chicago Bears, grabbed me by my coat, and slammed me against a concrete wall.

A Florida-style Stand Your Ground law would have explicitly entitled me to meet force with force without having to retreat first, if I believed it were necessary to prevent death or bodily harm to myself.

Breathing alcohol fumes on me, this huge man asked, “What did you think of my leader?”

“I thought Dr. King was a great man,” I answered. The poor fellow’s eyes welled with tears. He released me and shuffled off weeping.

Those who legally carry concealed weapons would likely have encouraged me to shoot that man in “self-defense.” Indeed, 32 states now have some form of Florida’s law.

Kill a man for grieving – even if it was angry grieving?

Many Americans have been duped into believing they, too, can be Clint Eastwood with a .44 Magnum. They don’t realize Hollywood-style vigilantism is a universe apart from real life.

Dedicated police and other professional law enforcement officers do not act out vigilante fantasies.

When John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981, Mr. Hinckley’s gun was firing about 30 inches from my left ear. He got off six shots in 1.7 seconds before a mass of Secret Service agents pounced, grinding him into the concrete.

Of what use would a stand-your-ground mind-set have been in that melee? The Secret Service agents who apprehended a would-be presidential assassin did not use their guns.

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