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Judgment matters more than a gun.

Over the last 20 years, gun owners have enjoyed a remarkably good run of luck. State after state has adopted shall-issue concealed weapon permit laws, allowing the majority of adults to obtain permits to carry a gun. Alaska, Arizona, and in 2011, Wyoming, (1) have joined Vermont in allowing "constitutional carry," meaning that there is no longer a requirement to have a concealed handgun license to carry a gun. As long as you can legally possess a handgun, you can legally carry one concealed without a permit.

There have been a small number of incidents in which concealed carry permitholders have committed violent crimes, sometimes with guns. Fortunately, the number of such incidents has been pretty small compared to the vast number of permitholders, and in spite of the best efforts of the gun control advocates to make a big stink about this, the news media seem to have generally recognized that this is really a non-issue.

Unfortunately, some of the incidents are pretty darn serious, and they make gun owners look bad. One recent incident in Florida is receiving a bit of media attention for all the wrong reasons, but it reveals a situation that every concealed carry permitholder should think about very, very carefully. Many gun owners spend a lot of worrying if .380 ACP is a sufficient caliber, or working on their marksmanship skills, or developing their situational awareness, to make sure that they do not get caught off-guard. These are all important skills, but good judgment matters far more.

In February of 2012, according to news accounts, a 28-year-old (in some accounts, 25-year-old) named George Zimmerman was part of a Neighborhood Watch committee in Sanford, Florida. He was driving around his gated community, looking for criminal activity. Zimmerman has a concealed handgun license, and he was armed. (2) I'm only going to tell you that Zimmerman, in spite of the name, is Hispanic, because the usual suspects who like to bang the drum about racism are doing so.

Zimmerman saw a 17-year-old black kid named Trayvon Martin whom Zimmerman did not recognize. Martin was visiting his father's girlfriend, who did live in the neighborhood. (3) Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person walking through the neighborhood. Zimmerman was convinced that Martin was high, although it does not seem like he had much basis for this belief. Perhaps more importantly, Martin started to run when Zimmerman called 911. The 911 operator dispatched a police officer to the scene, and told Zimmerman to meet the police officer. (4)

What happened next is not entirely clear. Zimmerman appears to have left his car, and chased Martin down. Zimmerman's version is that Martin attacked him, knocking Zimmerman to the ground. (5) At least one witness, told police that that Zimmerman was on his back on the ground, and Martin was on top, with Zimmerman calling for help. (6) The police incident report says that Zimmerman's nose was bloody, there was "blood on the back of his head as well as grass on the back of his shirt." (7) All of this is consistent with Zimmerman's claim that Martin was beating him, and that Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense. It would be useful to hear Trayvon Martin's side of the story, but unfortunately, he is no longer able to do so. He's dead.

The police, at least at the time that I am writing this article in mid-March, have not charged Zimmerman. They have physical evidence and one witness statement that would indicate that Zimmerman was probably being seriously attacked, and in fear for his life. To construct a criminal case against Zimmerman, they would need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman attacked Martin--and that evidence does not exist. As you might expect, Martin's family is terribly upset, saying that Martin had walked to the store to get some candy, and was a good kid. They want the FBI to investigate this, because they don't believe Sanford Police Department is doing this right. (8)

The usual lunatics intent on turning this into a racial issue are wandering out of the woodwork; Najee Muhammad, "a member of the New Black Liberation Militia," is threatening a "citizen's arrest" of Zimmerman because the police won't do it. (9)

What's the problem with this shooting? First of all, the 911 dispatcher asked Zimmerman, "Are you following him? ... Okay, we don't need you to do that." (10) Zimmerman was in his car when he called 911. There was no reason for Zimmerman to have left his car and chased Martin. Zimmerman had not seen Martin actually commit any crime--not even a minor crime. The only concern that Zimmerman expressed on the 911 tape was that Martin was acting "suspicious" because he was looking at the houses as he walked down the street.

If there were no police departments, it might be a sensible action for a citizen to stop a stranger walking through the neighborhood and ask, "What are you doing here?" But this is not a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. We pay police officers to investigate suspicious persons. They are trained to stop suspicious persons and figure out whether there is more to the story than meets the eye. They have backup, in case a person gets belligerent or argumentative, and they have a variety of less lethal weapons available to them for a case like this: an unarmed 17-year-old.

I suspect, when all is said and done, that Zimmerman will not be charged with a crime. It was really stupid for Zimmerman to confront Martin. Perhaps Martin overreacted to Zimmerman's confrontational manner. Perhaps Zimmerman got physical with Martin because Martin was not prepared to answer Zimmerman's questions. We'll never know exactly what happened when Zimmerman approached Martin, because there is only one living witness.

At the point where Zimmerman was on the ground, with Martin on top, apparently hitting Zimmerman hard enough that the back of Zimmerman's head was bloody, he was certainly justified in shooting Martin because he was afraid for his life: But this shooting did not need to take place.

Many years ago, my wife and I received concealed weapons training from a deputy sheriff in Sonoma County, Calif, as a requirement for obtaining concealed handgun permits there. The deputy who teaching the class made a point of the fact that even if you engage in a completely righteous shoot, you should plan on spending at least $15,000 defending yourself from a civil suit by the next of kin of the bad guy. (I am sure that today it would be a lot more money than that) I can guarantee you that whether or not Zimmerman is charged with a crime, he will be sued by Trayvon Martin's family.

In a civil suit, the standard of proof is very different from a criminal trial. When you are charged with a crime, the government must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty. This is a very high standard, and this is doubtless the reason that Zimmerman has not been charged, almost a month later: there is evidence that creates at least a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman broke the law. In a civil suit, the winning side only needs a preponderance of evidence: if 51% of the evidence shows that Zimmerman did the wrong thing, Martin's family will win, and the damages will be enormous for killing an unarmed 17-year-old who had done nothing more suspicious than walk down a street looking at houses.

We are not the police. Civilians are armed for self-defense and defense of others. It is not our job to stop someone walking down the street and interrogate them about their reason for being there. The consequences in this case are enormous. Trayvon Martin is dead. At most, he might have gotten pushy or confrontational with someone whom he saw as having no authority over him.

George Zimmerman, if he is lucky, will spend the next several years fighting a civil suit that will destroy him financially. If he is not lucky, he may go on trial for manslaughter--which will destroy him financially. The vast majority of legitimate gun owners who carry guns for self-defense are going to be tarred as mall ninjas by this incredible lapse in judgment.

Think long and hard when you holster your weapon and walk out on the street. If you draw that gun, it better be because you see a serious violent crime about to take place, or that has just taken place. It better not be because you can't wait for the police to show up and question a 17-year-old who walking down the street looking at houses.

(1) Joan Barron, "Wyoming Concealed-Carry Law Makes Few Ripples," Billings (Mont) Gazette, January 1, 2012,, last accessed March 18, 2012.

(2) "Man Shot and Killed in Neighborhood Altercation," Fox 35 Orlando, February 27, 2012,;shat-and-killed-in-neighborhoodaltercation#ixzz1pOwZ7zGf, last accessed March 18, 2012; Rene Stutzman, "Trayvon Martin Shooting Case Goes to State's Attorney Office Today," Orlando Sentinel, March 13, 2012,, last accessed March 18, 2012.

(3) "Man Shot and Killed in Neighborhood Altercation," Fox 35 Orlando, February 27, 2012,, last accessed March 18, 2012.

(4) "George Zimmerman Call to Sanford Police," WFTV,, last accessed March 18, 2012.

(5) Stutzman, Ibid.

(6) "Man Shot and Killed in Neighborhood Altercation," Ibid.

(7) Stutzman, Ibid.

(8) Matt Gutman, Olivia Katrandjian, and Seni Tienabeso, "Trayvon Martin Family Seeks FBI Investigation of Killing by Neighborhood Watchman," ABC News, March, 18, 2012,, last accessed March 18, 2012.

(9) Crimesider Staff, "Militia Group to Attempt Citizen's Arrest in Fla. Shooting of Trayvon Martin," CBS News, March 16, 2012,, last accessed March 18, 2012.

(10) Gutman, Katrandjian, and Tienabeso, Ibid.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho, and writes software for the State of Idaho. His website is
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Author:Cramer, Clayton E.
Publication:Shotgun News
Date:May 1, 2012
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