There are a lot of facts emerging from the Zimmerman-Martin trial, but few truths.
Here is one, I know for sure.
I say this as a walking paradox. I am a life-long liberal who grew up in farm county and believe owning and shooting a gun is almost second nature in life. I support the Second. I also favor sane regulations of guns — also cars, train locomotives, airplanes, acids and napalm.
And I say this as someone who probably can shoot better than 80 percent of rock-ribbed right wingers who watched too many Red Dawn reruns. I have been thoroughly trained through many days of courses in the use of guns for self-defense, distance shooting and, well, assaults with assault rifles.
Hundreds of hours at gun ranges and classes mean I can put two rounds into a pie-plate target five football fields away with a good spotter, and also dump and reload an assault rifle magazine while covering my field of fire with a pistol. I grew up hunting pheasants from age 10 and am a passable wing shot.
For a short period of time, I also carried a loaded gun with me constantly.
I did all these things while living in Texas not because I felt the need for protection.
I was working on a book about the gun culture and I figured to know it, I needed to be in it. The book was at first intended to expose the ease with which powerful weapons can be purchased — and it will someday, given the right publisher.
But I also learned as I was learning about the gun culture that despite the blowhard exterior rhetoric, inside elements are far more responsible than my fellow Easterners and big city liberals might think. And more responsible than the Glen Beck bozo gun proponents who get most of the face time on television.
My concealed carry handgun instructor at DFW Gun in Dallas did not tell me how to shoot punks for fun. He told me to run.
He told us — in 2010 — that the luckiest day in his life was when he did not in effect become Zimmerman. He went into a liquor store where a teenager with a huge revolver had the clerk at bay. The instructor’s pistol was in his pickup — left behind in the glove compartment.
We all expected this to be a warning about how you should never forget your gun.
Instead, it was the instructor’s grateful tale of how he did NOT confront the kid with a gun. Instead, the instructor managed to talk the kid down. In truth, the kid had no intent of harming anyone but himself. He was seeking “suicide by cop.” The police did not oblige the kid and took him into custody — where he calmed down, got some care and lived a fairly normal life.
“What would I have done for the rest of my life if I had shot that kid?”” the instructor asked. “If I had had the gun, I would have used it. How would I feel.. if I had….shot…that…kid?
“Every time you carry a gun, keep this story in mind. What consequences will you have even in a righteous shooting if you kill someone — even someone guilty as hell? You think you just walk away from that because you were right?”
You don’t. Plenty of study show that the barrel shoots both ways. Even our toughest warriors feel some sort of guilt, remorse or a sense of “something unnatural” after they have killed, however “cleanly” following rules of warfare, even a worthy cause. Near as they can tell, it seems to be built into our social DNA.
In Texas, I fell in with some retired Army colonels who had been in combat. You could assume these guys were tough. They were. But they were also smart and had seen the real consequences of guns shots — not just a video game or a movie. To be clear, they are ardently pro-gun.
The discussion one night fell upon a ranch a hundred miles or so south of them where “coyotes” — ruthless guides of illegal immigrants — had threatened ranch hands and fired at them.
“Why not just buy the ranch hands rifles for defense?” I asked. “If ever it would be justified, that would be it, right?”
We were in a hunting cabin with several semi-automatic rifles safely stored nearby. My friends had made it clear they were no fans of immigrants. So I thought it was a question that would be received well.
They were silent for a moment, and looked at each other. There was no eye rolling. Just a polite click of the eyes back and forth between them to me as if I had mud on my nose but it was too embarrassing to mention.
“You have second and third order effects,” my friend finally said.
“It sounds like a good plan,” he said. “The first order effect could more or less be handled if you kill the coyote or drug smuggler, or whatever, and they don’t kill you back.”
“But the consequences of actually shooting a person and living with that….” he said, and paused. “….that’s the second and third order effects. Liability might be one effect. Your own mental well-being almost certainly will be another and it will work on you for a very, very long time.
“It takes a lot for soldiers to do that and live with it. Civilians? Well. It’s just not a good plan if you think of what you are really paying and what you are getting… You might have a few days peace, your cattle will be safe for a while, but you have a lifetime to think about what you did…and you will…”
Even if you are more or less playing a role, as I was, you feel a little too empowered sometimes.
Or so it was for me.
The four days I “carried,” I felt stupid most of the time. I have trouble keeping track of an iPhone. A mean little .380 Ruger automatic wasn’t much bigger and I had to struggle not to unconsciously take it out of my pocket and put it on a desk and then walk away head down on some article. There was one moment at work in my office job when I nearly “answered” my Ruger at a meeting when the iPhone rang. Instruction or not, this was awkward.
But the clincher for me was my driving.
I’m not an aggressive driver, but I’m not passive either. I hold my own on packed highways and I don’t like being cut off. I am not troublesome about it. I just get frustrated and mumble sometimes. “Idiot.” “Thanks pal.” “Real nice!” And my favorite: “Come on lady (fella, kid, grandma, grandpa)!” And “Go already!” That was the worst of it.
With the gun on board, I drifted toward troublesome. If someone cut me off, I was unconsciously aware of that gun and went just a little faster on the car-villains tail or honked the horn a little longer. The self-muttering became more pronounced and profane. I would pat the gun to make sure it was there and drive a bit faster, yell a bit louder.
And somewhere in there, I became aware of that. And hung the gun up, never to carry it again. It was empowering me all right. But empowering toward what? An argument over a traffic slight? Lethal force to settle a fender bender?
Confronting a 17-year-old kid?
I am a writer by trade and what floated back to me was some advice to writers from Chekov.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
And this anonymous saying: “When your tool is a hammer, you see the world ‘s problems as nails.”
If my tool was a Ruger, how was I seeing the world? And where would that take me? If I did not intend to use the gun, why was I so to speak hanging it on the wall in the first act?
I believe the right to carry carries awesome responsibility that only a very few of us can handle — and that I could not, despite all my training. It confers incredible power upon the carrier. And it invites catastrophe if that power leads to confrontations that would not ordinarily take place.
Guns shoot both ways, folks. Believe it. There are “first order” effects when the gun throws a slug at a target.
But the “second and third order” events come hurtling back quick toward the shooter — in terms of liability and psychological impairment.
I wish Mr. Zimmerman — if only for his own sake — had gotten the gun instructor who warned me about this simple fact. I wish the macho pro Stand Your Ground advocates were also next to me in that class.
And I wish most of all that responsible gun owners — not those rooting-on tragic confrontations such as the Zimmerman case — would dispense wisdom and caution in a loud enough voice to rise above the din.