Trayvon Martin’s death is a tragedy.
Much has been and will be written on Trayvon Martin’s homicide, race and racism, law enforcement, and what constitutes justifiable homicide. At the center of the legal controversy is Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law. The law, versions of which were enacted in over two dozen states since 2005, extended “Castle Doctrine” self-defense rights beyond homes and vehicles. Law enforcement organizations and district attorneys’ groups opposed the laws because it broadened the definition of imminent threat so as to render nearly obsolete the legal threshold of what a “reasonable” person would do in any particular situation. They accurately predicted an increase in lethal force and now justifiable homicides.
The National Rifle Association was the key player behind the successful push for Stand Your Ground laws. Why?
Yes, the NRA is the flagship organization in the gun rights movement, and Stand Your Ground laws expand gun rights. And no, the NRA is not afraid of receiving some negative press, which was inevitable given the way the law was written. Superficially, these reasons help explain why the NRA is not going to retreat from their support of these laws. When the NRA promotes and defends Stand Your Ground laws and other gun rights legislation, though, it is actually defending a set of conservative values that are centered upon individual rights and freedoms. The NRA defends not the freedom of religion, but the religion of freedom. As former NRA President Charlton Heston said, “The gun itself is just a symbol. It’s individual freedom we’re fighting for.”
The NRA believes that more guns equals less crime and an armed society will be a polite society, but more importantly they argue that their Second Amendment rights protect your First Amendment rights. Gun rights, they assert, protect and ensure all others. What lies behind this view is a distrust and fear of government. Or as the NRA and conservatives prefer to call it: the “Nanny State.” Framing the government as an overbearing nanny hell-bent on taking away individual rights and freedoms is incredibly effective in a country that so emphasizes individualism, independence, and self-reliance.
The Nanny State coddles criminals. The NRA fights for the rights of law-abiding citizens. The Nanny State wants you to give up your guns and rely on the government for protection. The NRA wants to protect and extend your gun rights, and your right to defend yourself and your family. Bleeding-heart liberals want to give criminals second and third and fourth chances.
The NRA wants to grant you the right to use lethal force if you feel threatened. Gun control groups call the laws “Shoot First” (and ask questions later). There are no shades of gray between gun control and gun rights groups on this issue. Until gun control groups can find a way to generate religious-like fervor for their cause, the NRA and the gun rights movement will continue to dominate, and Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws will expand. The only shades of gray will be the lack of evidence prosecutors have to challenge a claim of self defense when lethal force is used. Untrained gun owners will know that the law is on their side when they feel threatened, even by someone unarmed. Trayvon Martin was not the first victim of this mentality, and sadly he won’t be the last.
Scott Melzer is the author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture Wars (forthcoming in paperback this fall).