The Common Good

The Color of Justice

Oddly, I wasn't there the night George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. I wasn't in the jury box either. Some commentators, like Ezra Klein and Ta-Nahesi Coates, are saying the not guilty verdict was appropriate according to Florida's "stand your ground" law. (Note that they are not saying that the Florida law is appropriate; Klein uses the word outrageous).

If this verdict was appropriate, though, what about verdicts in cases that were similar except for the color of the defendant? What happened to the "stand your ground" law when the jury reached its verdict against Marissa Alexander — an African American woman from Jacksonville, Fla.?

And anyway, why should fear of attack justify shooting to kill? It didn't in the case of  John White — an African American man from Long Island, N.Y. — who shot a (white) teenager in 2006 (accidentally, he says, when the boy was trying to grab his gun).

John White, it appears, had good reason to fear the boys who showed up on his doorstep that night. That's probably why the governor commuted his sentence after he had served five months. And White no doubt should have served some time, according to New York law — his gun was unregistered, and if he hadn't been holding it when he went to the door, a scuffle probably wouldn't have escalated into manslaughter.

But, some say, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Is this true?

  • Imagine that Trayvon Martin lived by that principle and was also armed when he met George Zimmerman. Imagine they both pulled out their guns and fired, and Zimmerman went down. Do you think the jury would have found Martin guilty?
  • Imagine that Marissa Alexander's husband had come after her with a gun. Would she then have just fired warning shots? And if she had actually killed him, what would her sentence have been? Remember than Florida allows capital punishment, and that Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill that speeds up the process.
  • Imagine that the boys who came after John White's family had all had guns. Would they have used them? Would White have been able to stop them?
  • Imagine that none of these people had guns. Who would be dead? Who would be in jail?

As it is, two boys (who may have been innocent) are dead because they frightened armed men (who may have been innocent, apart from the fact that they were holding guns). One man (who looks pretty darn guilty to me) is still alive because an armed woman decided to shoot in the air instead of at him. Two African-Americans were found guilty. One man with a whiter face was found not guilty.

America, we have a problem with race. And with guns.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

Image: Scales of Justice,  tlegend / Shutterstock.com

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