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.

Joy Cusack
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.'

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.]

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.

But if it’s illegal for police to shoot impulsively, why are so many state legislatures empowering people to become judge, jury, and executioner anytime they are afraid?

As a society we are increasingly dressing up murder in the gown of “justifiable homicide.” The Washington Post reports that in the five years before Florida’s law was enacted, Florida prosecutors identified an average of 12 “justifiable” killings each year by private citizens. In the five years after the law was passed, that number tripled.

Stand Your Ground laws are perilous. They get people killed, because they substitute impulse for intelligent thought.

It’s also been my overwhelming experience that those who put their faith in guns will ultimately be outgunned.

In December 2001, my CNN camera crew and I were high up in the White Mountains of Afghanistan following a cold trail left by Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora.

A Taliban gang offered to show us some vacant Al Qaeda caves if we paid them several hundred dollars. When I refused, they pronounced us “prisoners.”

Our private security guard had only one Kalashnikov AK-47. The Taliban were aiming 20 Kalashnikovs at us.

Waiting calmly while they conferred was the only option. One of the fighters noticed we had a hand-held satellite phone. He asked if he could borrow it to call his mother in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. After a 10-minute conversation with “Mom” he became all smiles, telling us we were welcome to leave. He also handed back the $1,000 sat phone.

Patience, fearlessness, and a quick wit are more likely to save your life, and they trump guns any time. I have had pistols held to my head from Bosnia to Beirut, and knives at my throat from Beirut to Afghanistan. From my experience it is all too often bullies and cowards who carry and use handguns.

Americans’ faith in guns is sorely misplaced. Ultimately, they encourage fear and fantasy, and they leave everyone more insecure.

Mexico, Colombia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, and the West Bank are awash in guns. Their societies are not ones that Americans should emulate.

Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN.

This note from the Monitor's editor ran in the April 30 edition of the print Monitor Weekly:

The columns of John Hughes and Walter Rodgers have anchored the Commentary pages every other week since the Monitor Weekly was launched three years ago. As of this issue, we are saying goodbye to their scheduled contributions; instead, our editors will turn to them and a larger group of writers, depending on the expertise needed to tackle a particular topic. And talk about expertise!

Many of you knew Walt over the years as an intrepid correspondent for CNN, and before that ABC News and AP Radio. He was stationed in Berlin, Jerusalem, and Moscow, and covered conflicts from Sarajevo to Beirut to Tora Bora. As a columnist, Monitor readers know, he is not afraid to say what he thinks. His last regular column, for instance, takes a strong position against the belief that carrying firearms is a good idea.

And John Hughes? His is one of the most distinguished careers in journalism. A native of Wales, John was editor of the Monitor from 1970 to 1979, served as US assistant secretary of State and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his reporting on a coup in Indonesia and the government-backed killing of more than 200,000 people.

John also owned and ran a string of newspapers on Cape Cod before shifting to a diplomatic career. He ran the Voice of America, served as State Department spokesman, and chaired a presidential-congressional panel on broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China before becoming editor of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. He is now a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

Like all journalists, Walt and John prize the front row seat to history that journalism gave them. As John puts it: “I can’t believe I got paid to travel the world, interview everyone from presidents to kings, good guys and bad guys. It’s a magical profession.”

Walt sees things this way: “Journalism has been the best time in the world. Where else could I have met every American president since JFK?”

Thank you, gentlemen. Monitor readers have been enriched by your experience, your deft touch as writers, and your interesting observations. We hope to continue hearing from you.

– John Yemma, Editor

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