The simple logic of self-defense



Guns on Campus, Discouraging News, Addendum 1

The cable news networks, like the newspapers long before them, have turned “tabloid” coverage of crimes and trials into a staple element of their programming. It may have started with the murder trial of O. J. Simpson, but, if the recent ratings for the coverage of the Jodi Arias case is any indication, the public appetite for such stories is either insatiable or very easily whetted.

On the horizon is the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. The issues in this case have become muddied in the broader, vitriolic debates about gun rights, and although the introduction of those issues into this case is unfortunate in terms of its litigation, the case does present an opportunity to define some basic aspects of gun rights.

George Zimmerman was a member of a neighborhood watch. As such, he had the right to patrol his community and to report to police any suspicious behavior. Very arguably, he may also have had the right to try to interrupt a crime in progress and to detain a suspect until police could arrive.

He identified Trayvon Martin as an unfamiliar person in the neighborhood who was somehow behaving suspiciously, and he appropriately reported his suspicions to the police. The police told him that they would investigate and very pointedly advised him to remain in his car and not to pursue Trayvon Martin on foot.

He ignored that advice, pursuing Trayvon Martin in a manner that unarguably must have seemed increasingly very threatening to the teenager since Zimmerman was obviously older and physically larger than he was.

So when a struggle ensued between the two of them, Trayvon Martin was, unarguably, acting in self-defense against an attacker. George Zimmerman’s defense amounts to this argument: his shooting Trayvon Martin during this struggle was an act of self-defense because Trayvon Martin was defending himself more successfully than Zimmerman expected him to be able to do so.

The key is that George Zimmerman was not interrupting a crime in progress and had no legal right whatsoever to pursue, to confront, or to physically detain Trayvon Martin.

Consider a slight change to the scenario of their struggle. Let’s say that George Zimmerman had been committing the more clear-cut crime of attempting to commit an armed robbery against Trayvon Martin. If he had shot Trayvon Martin in that situation, the killing would very clearly be considered a murder. It would be considered not just a compounding element of the crime of armed robbery, but, instead, the murder would take precedence over the armed robbery, which would be considered an aggravating factor that might, along with other factors, warrant the death penalty for the murder.

Let me be very clear, I am not arguing that George Zimmerman deserves the death penalty. But the declared motive for the armed and illegal assault on Trayvon Martin cannot be turned around in an attempt to decriminalize it.

Indeed, if I decided to chase another person down the street and that person tripped and struck his or head fatally on a curb because of my pursuit, what would be the charge against me if it turned out that I did not have a very good reason for chasing that person? It would clearly be—and should be—manslaughter, assuming that I had been unarmed. So, why should carrying a gun during such a pursuit be make the resulting death excusable, or even lead to the same charge?

So, if the Gun Lobby comes out in force of George Zimmerman, it will tell Americans one thing very clearly: the Gun Lobby is more interested in protecting the sale and use of guns–and its own political influence–than it is in protecting Americans. Because if the shooting of Trayvon Martin was not a murder, then anyone can shoot anyone else without fear of punishment as long as he has the sense afterwards to assert that he had felt threatened and compelled to defend himself.

And, since my recent post on the decision by some universities to allow guns on campus seemed to draw unprecedented reader response (see below), I will risk inciting more of that sort of response by stating very plainly that the risk in allowing some people to carry guns on campus is that the rest of us have to trust that everyone who is carrying a gun recognizes the limits to his or her gun rights and recognizes that self-defense is something very different than a way to end a fight that you started and then seemed to be losing.

I suggest that we all should watch the murder trial of George Zimmerman and the Gun Lobby’s response to it to decide for ourselves if such a degree of trust is warranted.



Recently, during an extended personal conversation, an administrator at my university jokingly (or half-jokingly) called me an “asshole.” I thought that it was very funny because we know each other fairly well and I had been increasingly goading him into making some response of that sort. A short while later, however, he apologized for the remark. I told him that the apology was not necessary, that if he wanted to insult me he would have to try much harder. To illustrate, I said that when I was a teenager, if I had been walking down the street with a group of my friends and someone had shouted in our direction, “Hey, asshole!,” we each would have assumed that he was talking to us.

When I posted the piece on the decision by five Pennsylvania universities to allow guns on campus, I had expected some blowback and received much more than I had even expected. I wrote the following note to several people: “Apparently one way to increase the readership is to focus on guns. So I am thinking about using the word ‘guns’ in every blog post from now on, regardless of the topic. Perhaps I will include it even in the titles: for instance, ‘More about MOOCs (and Guns!)’ and ‘Solutions to the Student Debt Crisis (Several Involving Guns!)’ and ‘How to Enhance a Basic Assignment with Digital Technologies (and Possibly Guns!)’.”

Nonetheless, despite the dismal level of discourse practiced by most of my new correspondents, I allowed any comments on the blog post that offered any degree of thought beyond calling me an idiot, a moron, a shithead, and any of about a dozen slang derogatory synonyms for gay people. Most of these epithets were accompanied by some form of or compound involving the word “fuck,” or worse.

Sadly, I have to admit that, at least for the moment, it all made me feel kind of young again.