How Do We Prevent The Next Trayvon Martin Tragedy? Gun Control

This essay originally appeared on Palo Alto Patch.

Trayvon Martin

I wouldn’t call it an obsession exactly, but the killing of Trayvon Martin has occupied much of my attention lately.  Perhaps it is the senseless waste of a young life, or the fact that yet another parent has needlessly lost their beloved child, or the incontrovertible racist undertones, or the role unbidden fear played in his death (or all of the above) that has nurtured my mania. But while I have spent an inordinate amount of time reading news articles and watching one too many news videos on the case, not once have I confronted a meaningful discussion about gun control. 

Let’s be clear, it is highly likely Trayvon Martin would be alive today if George Zimmerman did not possess a handgun. Think about it. Two individuals come upon each other in the night. It’s dark and drizzling. One is shrouded by the hood of his sweat shirt, the other is hyped up by his role as community policer. They each have their own long list of anxieties and fears which eventually leads them to a confrontation. Without a gun, it’s a shouting match or maybe even a scuffle. With a gun, we know the ending.

The equation is simple: no gun, no death.

Let’s do a little more math while we are at it. The Children’s Defense Fund released a report last week (to little fanfare, I might add) noting 2008 and 2009 studies which revealed that in the United States:

  • One child died every three hours due to guns (5,740 deaths to be exact);
  • One child was injured every 31 minutes due to guns (34,387 children injured to be exact);
  • The leading cause of death amongst male black teenagers was due to guns;
  • The likelihood of a black male teenager being killed by a gun was 8x higher than for white teenaged males;
  • And, black teens were 25x more likely to be injured (or killed) by a gun during an assault than their white peers.

Guns play a vicious role in the lives of all children, but they are particularly noxious for black children. It makes sense, and is necessary, that we are discussing the role of racism in Trayvon’s death. But don’t the statistics above call us to ask at all levels what can be done to avoid these tragedies? I know the right to bear arms is built into our constitution, but at what cost? Does supporting that “inalienable right” justify yet another senseless death?

As it stands, nearly 45% of American households own firearms, that’s 4.3x higher than Italy, 10x higher than Greece, and 30x higher than Norway (where, by the way, the country has repudiated gun ownership even despite the horror of last summer’s murderous rampage.  Of those American households harboring guns, 67% of the them said they do so for security purposes. Really?  Seems to me these are just accidents waiting to happen.

I remember a neighbor of mine telling me about a play-date her son had recently been on. He was nine-years-old and had spent the afternoon at a new friend’s house. Turns out much of that afternoon was spent playing with the handgun the kid’s parent’s kept in their nightstand.

“It never dawned on me to ask the mother, Do you keep guns in your house? And if you do, are they locked up?” my visibly shaken girlfriend said.

I was shocked. In my “Mayberry” world, no one owns guns. You don’t need to because you know your neighbors and we all watch out for each other. So I decided to take an informal poll of my actual neighbors. Turns out, many more than I imagined do own firearms. Sure some of the guns were hunting riffles, but a surprising number of them were handguns, owned for security.

In one conversation, a father said the recent break-ins helped him rationalize his decision to have a handgun next to his bed. “I want to be sure I can protect my family,” he said in all earnestness.

The rash of burglaries is deeply concerning. There’ve been seventy one since January 1st and last year we had a total of 149 in Our Fair City. We haven’t seen numbers like this since 2007. That was just before Police Chief Lynne Johnson made national news when she told her officers racial profiling was justifiable.

Now we have our new police chief, Dennis Burns. He’s working hard to do the sensible thing, reaching out and telling us he needs our help to protect our neighborhoods. He’s reminding us to“Lock It or Lose It” and encouraging us to join our local Neighborhood Watch program. All good ideas, in theory.

It makes sense to lock our houses before we leave and getting to know our neighbors reaps a myriad of benefits including helping to keep a look out for each other. But while paying careful attention to the goings on around our city streets could be immensely helpful, I worry we are laying fertile ground for nurturing the fear that will create the next gun toting George Zimmerman.

We can’t eradicate fear or, much as we might want to, racism, but we can get rid of the weapons of violence that create victims as a result of fear and racism.  So while we sport our hoodies in an effort to demand justice, let’s not cover our eyes to the one solvable issue at hand: guns kill.  We can prevent thousands of needless deaths by removing them from the equation.

The truth is we have to, because we don’t live in Mayberry anymore.

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