Of course the George Zimmerman trial was about race, and it’s natural for us to spend the days after the verdict deliberating that in all its particulars. (The faceoff on the Washington Post op-ed page between Richard Cohen, rationalizing Zimmerman’s fear of black boys in hoodies, and Eugene Robinson’s cri-de-coeur about the lost youth of African American men pretty much says it all. For the undercard, I heartily recommend the day-long Twitter debate between Will Saletan and Tom Scocca.) But could we spare just a moment to talk about the other factor that led Trayvon Martin to end up lying on a sidewalk in Sanford, Florida with a bullethole in his chest?
I know, I know—guns don’t kill people, hyper-vigilant neighborhood watchmen kill people. But that’s just the thing: it was far more likely that George Zimmerman was going to be carrying a deadly weapon that night in Florida than his equivalent wanna-be cop would’ve been in many other states. There are more than one million active concealed-carry permits in Florida. That’s tops in the nation—one for every 14 Florida adults. It’s painfully obvious, but must be said anyway: if Zimmerman is out protecting the streets that night with naught but his martial-arts skills and maybe some pepper spray, Trayvon Martin would be alive today. Or consider an extreme counter example: the United Kingdom is known for its share of hopped-up young men, including plenty with ungenerous feelings toward their darker-skinned compatriots, yet it is also far, far, far less likely to have similar encounters end in fatalities. The past few years in this country have averaged about 11,000 firearms homicides with firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while England and Wales hover around 60 per year, for a per-capita rate that is about one-thirtieth of ours. Do we really think that British hooligans are just that much more even-tempered than their stateside counterparts? Or do we think that the U.K.’s far stricter laws on guns and their corresponding vastly scanter presence on the sceptered isle might just have something to do with it?
This may seem like fraught territory for the gun control movement, which has gained momentum of late by fighting on the relatively safe terrain of issues such as background checks for gun purchases, where it has the support of overwhelming majorities of Americans, if not filibuster-proof majority of senators. The gun-control groups have certainly weighed in on the Zimmerman case—“George Zimmerman had a gun that night, and the state of Florida allowed him to carry it virtually anywhere despite a violent history. Virtually anybody roaming our neighborhoods with hidden handguns is the gun lobby's vision, but it is not the vision of the rest of the American public truly committed to safer communities,” said Brady Campaign President Dan Gross after the verdict. But they have not gone out of their way to capitalize on the case. Their restraint is understandable—after taking such pains to demonstrate that they are not trying to take people’s guns away, it might be seen as a bit chancy for them to be out there arguing that the sheer profusion of guns in Florida contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin.
But it shouldn’t be. In this corner of the debate, as with background checks for gun purchases, there is a vast sensible middle ground to stake out. On background checks, the gun control movement has made the persuasive argument that if we require them for those buying guns at licensed firearms dealers, then we ought to require them of the many purchases made through unlicensed dealers at gun shows and in private transactions. Similarly, in this arena, gun control proponents should be able to make the equally sensible argument that permits to carry concealed weapons in public should be held to a high standard—and, yes, that we need to think twice before buttressing the legal right of someone to fatally shoot someone they feel threatened by.
There is a reason why there are so many concealed-carry permits in Florida—the state makes it awfully easy to get one. Florida is a “shall-issue” state, meaning that there is little if no discretion left up to the authorities to withhold a permit if the applicant meets the minimum requirements. That the state leaves the awarding of permits up to its Department of Agriculture, and not to law enforcement, speaks volumes. There are some limits on the permits—you can’t be a fugitive from justice!—but nothing that kept George Zimmerman, who was arrested in 2005 for “resisting an officer with violence” and that same year had a restraining order taken out against him by his ex-fiance—from having the right to carry that night in 2012.
It is simply far less likely that a Zimmerman equivalent in a state with stricter standards on concealed-carry—like New York, say—would have been armed in a similar encounter. In other words, the differences in state gun laws really do matter at the margins, especially in the realm of concealed carry, where the rules are mostly set state by state. This has implications for those who don’t like the thought of thousands of armed George Zimmermans roaming the land: it means paying attention to, and lobbying and voting on, the fine points of legislation being passed in your city halls and state capitols. In recent years, the people following things that closely have mostly been those seeking to expand the right to carry, which is how we’ve ended up with concealed carry now permitted in all 50 states.
By all means, fulminate against racist gunmen or jurors or pundits. But then tune in with your state legislature, too.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.