I am Trayvon Martin. Well, of course, not really, as I am a still-living white man well in his fifties, though I too faced on a darkened Florida night a disgruntled gun owner who easily could have (wrongly) claimed self-defense and gotten away with murder had he slain me. Furthermore, while the story lines are not parallel, the end result could have been the same: a youth robbed of future by an angry, possibly frightened man who badgered authorities with tales of injustice and lawbreaking, and took matters in his own hands rather than relying on the police. I too could have been a Martin.
Now, before I am flayed by the NRA and Second Amendment crowd, who conveniently forget the words “well-regulated,” let me say I am not against gun ownership, or even gun collecting or hunting, for the most part. My father was a competitive pistol shooter in college, a sighter and gunsmith, a proud NRA member, collector of all manners of fired weapons, and he taught me to handle a gun. I don’t mind hunters who kill efficiently and eat their prey, though I am not much in favor of trophy shooting and definitely oppose the hunting of rare animals, no matter the cultural or religious justifications used to buttress calls for unfettered access to these animals (as they belong to the entire world, and extinction is forever). The wiping out of the Florida Panther, for instance, rankles in my bones. I send my boys to a yearly shooting camp so that they too get the experience and learn the responsibility of handling a weapon, as well as, I hope, of developing a respect for their power and danger. I do not like, however, uncontrolled access to guns and relaxed concealed weapons laws, and oppose any legislation that makes it easier to take a person’s life, whether it be private citizen or the government.
Late one night more than thirty years ago I drove along a moon-lit country road that snaked between lakes and orange groves that lead home from my busboy job at a local country club. I was eighteen, a recent high-school graduate, and earning money to attend the University of South Florida. I had traversed this particular pathway many times and knew it well, though it could pose difficulties for the uninitiated or impaired. A particularly challenging set of tight s-curves, which bisected the property of an old man, graced the final stretch just before turning off toward a nearby highway, as this was the back way toward Lake Keystone. The old guy had a reputation for orneriness, and along the edges of this country lane he had placed metal spikes to flatten tires of anyone unlucky enough to stray off the pavement. He hated drunk drivers, and in this he was not remarkable. Allegedly, several of his prized dogs had been struck down, though the state of inebriation of the drivers and culpability of the canines themselves is unknown. Nevertheless, those familiar with this stretch usually took care in mastering it. As I approached the turns, unlit by streetlight, I spied a fire at the edge of the pond on the left. As I neared, I could see it was a car alight, seemingly tipping into the water, and a man stood next to the driver’s door. Then I noticed that the car was occupied, and I jumped from my vehicle to give a hand, as no doubt a rescue attempt was underway.
I was wrong. An old man stood tightly against the door, while the occupant lolled in his seat, possibly injured or inebriated. Clearly he was not going to let the man out. As I approached, I was warned off. “I’m tired of these goddamn drunks. Let him fry.” Now, I was a big boy, six four and about 280 pounds. I towered over the landowner. As the flames continued to lick the rear of the car, I brushed the old guy aside, jerked open the door, and pulled the occupant out into the already wet grass. I dragged him up toward the road and away from the wreck. This was before the day of cell phones, and I heard no sirens. The old man was enraged, spitting abuse toward me for interfering in his rough justice. I looked up at him and said, “I don’t care. You don’t let a person burn to death. Let the police handle it.” He stomped and ranted, almost like a unloosed buck dancer, and then huffed off to his home across the road. The driver was barely conscious, but didn’t seem too badly injured, and I stood over him awaiting the eventual arrival of help. I then heard someone approach, and as I turned I found myself looking at double-barreled shotgun thrust into my face. The old guy quivered in rage.
Was I afraid? Perhaps. But a strange calmness descended upon me, and I just stared at the man. Didn’t move, didn’t react, didn’t yell. Just stood there, probably expecting that this would be my last minutes on earth, though I remember no thoughts, just a paralyzing state of nothingness. I don’t know how long he had the gun on me, it is such a blur in my memory, but eventually I heard a siren in the background and the old man turned away and walked toward some pine trees, where he rested the weapon against the back of one. The deputy was efficient, put out the fire, and soon had the driver in his car, most likely arrested, but I do not know. Afterwards he asked me what had happened, and I told him straight, including the shotgun experience. He walked over and confirmed the gun was where I said it was, and he spoke to the old man. I expected some redress, at least for the threat against my life, but the deputy came back and said, “Well, you are on his land. And he claimed he never said he was going to kill you, so there is really nothing I can do. You can take it to civil court.” It was my word against his. And that was that. I never was called to testify in any court proceedings and never spoke to either gentleman again. But I had faced a premature death, and had he pulled the trigger he could easily have claimed he was afraid of me and feared for his life, and asserted the shooting was justified. If this had happened today, he most likely would have gotten away with it.
The Martin incident brought the memory searing back. How lucky I had been. What if I had had to fight the old guy or manhandle him away from the car in order to save the driver? What if he, even accidentally in his anger, had blown me away and then covered up the incident with staged injuries or testimony from friends or neighbors? Would my family have even known what I did? Certainly he was acting as judge and jury over the driver, and in that the old man was not so different from Zimmerman. Stand-your-ground laws are a danger to society and make it easier to take a life. People should be allowed to defend their homes, but cooler heads and professionals should handle policing.