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Derrick Z. Jackson

Vigilantes’ license to kill

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istockphoto; globe staff illustration

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THE EXONERATION of George Zimmerman cemented America as the land of the free and the home of the paranoid. Vigilantism was not merely vetted by a six-woman jury in Sanford, Fla. It was lifted to an exalted status where the overzealous can put themselves above the police with fatal consequences — and no consequence.

What should never be forgotten is the fateful dialogue when Zimmerman, the untrained volunteer neighborhood watchman, called 911 and got out of his car to trail a person he thought was “up to no good or on drugs” in his gated community on the rainy night of Feb. 26, 2012.

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“Are you following him?” the dispatcher asked Zimmerman, after telling him that police were on the way.

“Yeah,” Zimmerman responded.

“OK, we don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher said.

The rest is tragic history, ending in Zimmerman shooting to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who possessed only a bag of Skittles candy and iced tea. What is particularly haunting is that one of the jurors who set Zimmerman free told CNN that Zimmerman’s zealotry lit the powder keg of confrontation.

“He went above and beyond what he really should have done,” the juror said Monday. “. . . I think he’s guilty of not using good judgment. When he was in the car and he called 911, he shouldn’t have gotten out of that car.”

No matter, the jury focused only on the actual confrontation, and Zimmerman became the most stark symbol yet of a United States where gun possession is nine-tenths of the law, since the dead can bear no witness. It was the perfect storm of stereotypes colliding into the most insane gun laws in the developed world. Zimmerman, a light-skinned man of Hispanic background, got a nearly all-white jury, and his defense team convinced it to look past his initial bad judgment and obvious racial profiling that night. Before the trial, local police and state prosecutors botched the case. Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense laws, which give gun owners great leeway to use lethal force against threats, delayed Zimmerman’s arrest and the gathering of evidence.

Zimmerman so believed in his story that he said in an interview that the events of Feb. 26 were “God’s plan.”

Surely God did not plan this for the United States. How many more perfect storms do we want to invite, with guns striking like lightning in school massacres and in the daily murders in big cities?

We now have more guns and more pro-gun laws than ever, courtesy of the gun lobby, a cowed Congress, and a citizenry that lives in imagined fears despite lower crime rates. Concealed-carry, open-carry, and “stand your ground” laws have spread throughout the country. States with stronger gun control laws, including Massachusetts, and the lower murder rates to show they are effective, are still too often at the mercy of killers using guns brought over the border.

We started allowing loaded weapons into national parks in 2010, and the early returns are sadly troubling. The first murder of a park ranger in a decade occurred last year at Mount Rainier National Park, and the National Park Service recorded 100 violent acts against employees, the most in its history, according to the watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group was careful not to tie the increased aggression to gun laws, but it certainly indicates that more visitors think themselves above the law, just as Zimmerman did.

The returns on “stand your ground” should be no surprise, with Florida, Georgia, and Texas all having major increases of killings that were ruled “justifiable homicides” in recent years. According to a Congressional Research Service report last year, the number of privately owned guns in America has skyrocketed from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. And yet there is no evidence that Americans feel any more secure.

The greatest irony was that in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, law enforcement and the media were on the watch for violence from black communities.

The daily violence continues in all communities. It’s fueled by paranoia, and the new feeling of entitlement among gun owners, who seem to have stretched the meaning of “stand your ground” into “stalk your prey.”

There will be another George Zimmerman. The only question is when.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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