It's understandable if unfortunate that the controversy surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin has polarized the country along both racial and ideological lines. But there is one issue that should not have any racial connotations: the urgency of repealing "Stand Your Ground" laws.
And leave it to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to speak the blunt truth about why these laws are dangerous -- and why the National Rifle Association keeps pushing them anyway.
"In reality," Bloomberg said in a speech before the National Press Club last week, "the NRA's leaders weren't interested in public safety. They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it. Let's call that by its real name: vigilantism."
On guns, Bloomberg is strong and everyone else is feckless, to paraphrase the late columnist Murray Kempton.
OK, not exactly everyone else. Bloomberg's partners in the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns -- notably Boston's Mayor Tom Menino, the organization's co-chair -- have filled the void left in state legislatures, Congress and the White House by moderates, liberals and many conservatives who ought to know better but are too petrified by the NRA to confront it. Mayors face the daily toll taken by gun laws dictated by gun lobbyists and are less easily intimidated.
"Feckless" is a favorite word of columnists. Its first meanings, according to Webster's, are "weak" and "ineffective," and it is an ineffectiveness spawned by weakness that explains why Stand Your Ground laws spread through legislatures like a virus. By Bloomberg's count, they are now on the books in twenty-five states. These laws didn't arise in response to broad, spontaneous popular demand. As both the Washington Post and the New York Times reported last week, the idea came from on high, courtesy of the NRA, which worked closely with a right-wing group called the American Legislative Exchange Council.
"It was the NRA taking a stealthy fight to the states," Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told me in an interview, "and twenty-five flowers bloomed."
Resistance to the gun lobby has grown so feeble and the NRA has won so many victories that its legislative maestros must find ever more creative ways to prove its relevance.
One way is to pretend that President Barack Obama, a disappointment to many who support more rational gun laws, is actually a grave threat to gun rights. He most assuredly is not. Yet Mitt Romney, who once supported gun-control measures, tried to Etch-a-Sketch that past away before the NRA Friday, pledging to defend rights he claimed the president "ignores or minimizes."
Another way is to come up with increasingly extreme laws to extend the reach of guns into American life. You can imagine that if the NRA proposed a statute to arm all ten-year-olds to make our schools safer, hundreds of state legislators and members of Congress would robotically vote yes. You can also predict what the NRA slogan would be: "An armed child is a safer child."
What's insidious about Stand Your Ground laws is that in every jurisdiction that has them, these statutes tilt the balance of power in any street encounter in favor of the person who has a gun. That's what happened in the Martin case. The law provides a perverse incentive for everyone to be armed.
Equally problematic, these measures complicate law enforcement, breeding confusion for both police and prosecutors. They weren't even necessary, since courts have long recognized the right to self-defense. As Glaze noted, "it's not about standing your ground, it's about taking authority away from police and ignoring four hundred years of common law that has always allowed you to defend yourself."
We need to know more about why officials in Florida were so slow in investigating and ultimately charging George Zimmerman in the Martin killing -- and one can hope that things will become clearer as the case moves forward. But it's very hard not to conclude that the Stand Your Ground law threw sand into the wheels of justice. As Bloomberg said, "The strongest law of all is one that is never on the books, and that is the law of unintended consequences. Stand Your Ground laws prove that that's true."
We do not need statutes that encourage citizens to assume that feeling threatened is reason enough to shoot another human being. And legislatures that just rubber stamp laws written by national lobbying groups turn the whole idea of "states' rights" into an empty and laughable slogan.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
About the Author
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).