February 26, 2012 is a day many people will long remember. It is the day one life was snuffed out, and another’s changed forever. Regardless of the legal outcome of the ensuing debacle, the killing of Trayvon Martin should serve as a prime example of the old adage, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The purpose of this post is not to debate the claims and counter claims being made in the media. At its most basic level, the issue is not whether George Zimmerman was a White Hispanic racist or a well-meaning neighborhood watch commander who acted in self-defense. Whatever the motivation, Zimmerman’s actions should be a glaring warning sign to anyone considering taking on the role of neighborhood protector, pseudo police officer or local hero.
George Zimmerman’s life will never be the same. Regardless of the outcome of the investigations, inquiries and charges, should any be filed, he will forever be known as a man who killed an unarmed teenager. If he avoids criminal prosecution and conviction, he will still face potential civil prosecution, and will be despised by many people. That is the potential reward for anyone who acts in a similar fashion.
To be as polite about it as possible, what Zimmerman did was stupid. There is no excusing the stupidity of his actions. One can understand that he was frustrated and concerned about the perceived lack of police protection in his area. One can understand that he would be especially vigilant when it came to suspicious activities near his home. However, making the conscious decision to confront a suspicious person under circumstances like the ones reported in this case is simply foolish, at best. It is not the act of a hero.
One of the most difficult lessons new police officers must learn is that their firearm is a last resort. No matter how justified one would be in using deadly force under the law, actually using deadly force for anything less than saving someone’s life will always leave the user vulnerable to criticism and legal attacks. It does not matter if the person using deadly force is a police officer, homeowner or self-appointed neighborhood watch leader. Anyone who uses deadly force is likely to become the focus of more negative attention than they ever imagined.
The moment George Zimmerman decided to follow Trayvon Martin he was placing himself, Trayvon and the community at risk. The moment he disregarded the communications officer’s comment that pursuing Martin was not needed, his potential liability in the situation increased tremendously. The moment he decided to confront or question Mr. Martin, he stepped across a line that placed his future in peril.
Mr. Zimmerman may avoid a conviction under state law due to the self-defense statute in Florida. He may even avoid conviction in federal court for violating the rights of Mr. Martin. Unfortunately, for him, the chances of the family pursuing damages in civil court are approaching a certainty. Regardless of the outcome of any criminal proceedings, there is undoubtedly a legion of lawyers lining up for the chance to pursue a civil case against Mr. Zimmerman.
Mr. Zimmerman may not have the proverbial pot to pee in. Still, a case like this has attorneys from civil rights groups, anti gun groups and other special interest groups waiting with bated breath to file a case. Of course, they will not stop with Zimmerman, they will attempt to file against anyone who can remotely be connected to Zimmerman’s side of this issue.
Some reading this piece may see it as anti gun, anti self-defense, and anti law and order. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is being written to emphasize that taking up a firearm, a deadly weapon, is not something to be done lightly or rashly. Anyone deciding to defend him or herself with deadly force is taking a risk. Anyone deciding to defend a third party with deadly force is taking an even greater risk. Anyone who arms himself to confront someone who is just acting suspiciously is asking to end up in a situation such as the one in which Mr. Zimmerman finds himself.
We are very lucky in this country. We have the right to bear arms. We have the right to defend ourselves, at least in most of the country. We even have the right to defend our property in some areas. Those rights come with limitations, responsibilities and potential liability. Before anyone decides to use a firearm to exercise one of these rights, he or she should know what he will face. This is not always easy.
Obtaining effective training and counsel can be a problem. Instructors who provide training for concealed weapons permits must protect themselves from possible liability and may give their students instruction and advice designed to limit the instructor’s liability. That does not necessarily mean the instruction or advice is bad. Still, it can mean instruction is limited and errs on the side of covering the instructor’s butt and not the student’s.
Other instructors, especially survival instructors, may go just as far the other way. A saying among survival types goes something like this. I would rather be tried by twelve than carried by six. That is an easy thing to say, especially if you have never used deadly force against another person. In the vast majority of the cases, that will be true. Few of the instructors an average citizen can hire ever used deadly force against anything more threatening than an animal or a target.
Finding a balance between these two extremes is difficult. However, realizing a balance is needed is essential. As Mr. Zimmerman is finding out, it is easy to brag that being tried by twelve is better than being carried by six. It is something else to live through it.
Thankfully, I have never had to make that decision. I have been as close as one can come to shooting another person, without completing the trigger pull, but I was lucky. The suspect always surrendered. Unfortunately, not everyone can say that.
I worked with police officers who killed or wounded suspects in the line of duty. These were experienced police officers, trained and prepared to do their job. Still, none avoided being changed by their actions. Some handled it better than others, but many never fully recovered.
Killing someone, even someone you feel is trying to kill you is no reason to rejoice. You may feel relieved that it was him and not you, but the chances are good you will never be the same.
This is especially true in a case like the one in Florida. Regardless of the outcome, George Zimmerman will know for the rest of his life, that his actions led to the death of a seventeen-year-old young man. An unarmed man, who was probably not a threat to anyone until Mr. Zimmerman confronted him. Maybe Zimmerman can live with that. Could you?
© S. E. Jackson-2012