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Power, Responsibility, Guns, and Zimmerman

by Michael Austin, published


It’s that whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing of Uncle Ben's that bothers me the most about the Zimmerman affair. It’s not that I disagree with the verdict per se. I wrote yesterday that I thought the jury made a reasonable decision based on the laws in effect and the facts in evidence. The state had the responsibility to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and it failed to do so. That is how our system works.

But I can’t help thinking that the “laws in effect”—in Florida and elsewhere—should have been different. I’m not talking about “Stand Your Ground”—which played only a small role in the trial. I’m talking about the whole host of gun laws that, over the past ten years or so, have made it much easier to carry deadly weapons in public places without increasing the legal responsibilities of those who do so. This strikes me as a betrayal of the logic behind the Second Amendment.

From the earliest days of the American republic, bearing arms was both a civil right and a civic responsibility—in much the same way that voting and serving on juries are now seen as both privileges and civic obligations. The militia was not simply all citizens bearing arms; it was all citizens bearing arms and entering into a compact to train together, serve together, and protect each other’s lives and interests. It was perhaps the most important aspect of citizenship in the early republic.

And the responsibilities and the rights were inseparable. Those who refused to train with their units, or who did not exercise care and good judgment in their handling of deadly force, were not permitted to be part of the militia. In early America, the right to bear arms was inextricably connected to the responsibility to bear them in a way that enhanced the public good. With great power came great responsibility.

But this sense of elevated responsibility has not been part of recent advances in gun rights. In many states, people can now claim the “right” to purchase just about any kind of gun for any reason, to carry their guns into public and private buildings, to use their guns whenever they feel a threat to their person or property, and to stand their ground if they are ever attacked.

What the Zimmerman verdict shows us is how little legal responsibility has come with the recent, dramatic increases in access to deadly force.

The Zimmerman jury was instructed—appropriately under Florida law—to consider only whether or not George Zimmerman, at the moment that he pulled the trigger, was afraid for his life. They could not consider questions like, “Why was he carrying a gun around the neighborhood in the first place?” or “What were his intentions when he went into a potentially hostile situation with a loaded weapon?” The law placed no additional burdens whatsoever on the man carrying the loaded gun than it did on the teenager carrying Skittles and iced tea.

This, I think, is what needs to change. The Second Amendment does not require us to permit every person to carry any gun to any place for any reason. But if we do decide to move that way, the spirit of the Second Amendment requires that we balance power and responsibility. In the beginning, the right to bear arms was contingent upon the willingness to work for the public good. Is it too much to ask that those who chose to exercise that right today accept the responsibility not to detract from it?

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