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Romancing the gun and Stand Your Ground

 Posted: 2:00 AM August 08, 2013

After the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, there was a call for a national conversation about race (and profiling) in America — an issue of enormous complexity, steeped in a dark history, still weighted down by the unpacked baggage of prejudice and discrimination. But perhaps we should acknowledge that the ultimate solution to an intractable bigotry will not rest with us, but with the generations that follow.

As well, we should not allow to slip into obscurity the fact that George Zimmerman was carrying a concealed weapon — a black Kel-Tec PF-9 mm semi-automatic — for reasons that still seem elusive. He was carrying that gun in a state that has pioneered the right of citizens to carry concealed, as well as the Stand Your Ground law, thereby creating a fateful intersection on that dark, rainy night.

While many of the facts of the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin will never be fully known, what is known is that Americans are arming themselves at an alarming rate. By some estimates, there are more than 300 million guns in private hands in America. Translated, that means that the U.S. has the best-armed civilian population in the world.

In the past year alone, according to The New York Times, more than 173,000 Florida citizens were granted new concealed-carry permits, "a 17 percent increase that is double the rate of five years ago," bringing the total of gun-ready citizens in Florida to more than 1 million.

This trend is also occurring in a dozen other states, the Times reports, where more than a half-million permits were issued in 2012 alone. And in the tragic aftermath of Newton, Conn., with the heart-wrenching images of those children and adults still seared in our national memory, some 20 states loosened their concealed-carry laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The number of Americans with concealed-carry permits is estimated by the Government Accountability Office to be 8 million. And the numbers continue to rise.

This begs the question: why? What causes Americans to feel the need, when leaving their home, to have a semi-automatic strapped to their side? What has occurred experientially that causes so many of us to perceive an abiding threat and decide that the only response is to carry concealed? What is the source of this fear, and is it based in any reality? Or is it a fantasy, a persistent and much-embellished mythology of an ever-present risk?

According to the FBI, violent crime in America is trending down, some 15.5 percent below 2002. How to resolve such data with a closely held perception that we increasingly live in perilous times? Have our media and entertainment and political parties been complicit in convincing us of a generalized yet potentially lethal threat? Or do some find in the possession of a concealed weapon a sense of control and empowerment as our national demographics change and life in America becomes ever more complex and seemingly unmanageable? Is this the reason guns have taken on an almost fetish-like allure?

And therein resides the fateful intersection: individuals carrying concealed, possessing an embedded view that they are unsafe, most especially from the other. And if they are suddenly confronted by that imagined, menacing stranger, they will be ready, their posture now buttressed by the Stand Your Ground law.

Currently, in many states, if confronted by a menacing individual you are required to retreat, if possible. The only exception may be when defending your home or vehicle. This is known as the Castle doctrine. In such circumstances, individuals are justified in using deadly force if they fear for their life. Then there is no duty to retreat.

If the Castle doctrine is shifted to other locations, however, and you are allowed to stand your ground, absent the duty to retreat, also known as "Line in the Sand," the Castle doctrine would shield you from criminal or civil liability.

While Stand Your Ground and its affirmative defense of justifiable lethal force still represents uncharted legal territory (was this Florida law the reason George Zimmerman was not immediately charged?), what is also of interest is why any individual (other than law enforcement), all things considered, should be permitted to carry concealed?

To advocate for expanded gun registry and background checks seems reasonable, even benign. Banning military-like assault weapons, whose purpose is to kill with maximum lethality, also seems reasonable. Such changes, clearly, should pose no threat to those who possess guns to defend their castle. Or use guns for sport and hunting.

But what is compelling, and should be a subject of discussion if not debate, is why an increasing number of Americans feel the need to carry a concealed weapon when going to a restaurant or to church or to the drug store. Are we simply romancing the gun? Or is it something else?

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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