The Sad Death of A Teen-Aged Boy

March 24, 2012

The death of Trayvon Martin is a sad tragedy, regardless of the facts. It hurts me from several perspectives, but perhaps most of all because I also lost a son at age 17 (and his mother, my wife, overwhelmed by a grief she couldn’t bear, later took her life). My heart goes out to his parents, who have lost something that can never be regained.

Like President Obama, who said (in effect) that “If I’d had a son, he’d have looked like Trayvon,” I can say, “If my son had been black, he’d have looked like Trayvon.” I see the boy’s photo and I don’t see black or white – I see my son, John David, and know what the world lost when each of these boys died seven decades too soon.

Some conservatives have criticized President Obama for jumping on this story, commenting on it and personalizing it. I disagree. His reaction is the natural reaction of a father, who can see in this boy’s death the loss he fears more than any other. I agree with SE Cupp, who has tweeted that conservatives need too pick their fights, and this isn’t one to pick – the President absolutely should have spoken on this issue.

This tragedy also brings up another important issue or two – the rights of free citizens to carry arms, and the laudable Florida law which permits people to stand their ground and defend themselves (a law that, sadly, Nevada doesn’t have). In this case – and I’m not trying to pre-judge the man who shot Trayvon – it appears that the man who pulled the trigger may have abused both of those rights.

The right of self-defense is (and should be) absolute – but under law, to defend yourself using deadly force, you first have to be attacked in a way that makes you believe your life is at risk. Just feeling threatened doesn’t count.

I’ll give two examples from my own life that I hope will make this clear.

First, some years ago, I was in a friend’s store, and to help him out, I had my camera and was taking publicity photos. I heard a commotion outside, followed by a gunshot, and (like an idiot) I went out to see what happened, camera around my neck. One man had just shot another with a shotgun – the shooter looked up, saw me and my camera, and began to head my way. I ducked into the store (thinking I’d exit by a non-existent back door), and he followed me in, shotgun at the ready. I had no way out, and the man who’d just shot another was looking to shoot me. That was an assault from which I could reasonably expect that my life was in danger – in that situation, I’d have been justified in shooting him (if I’d had a gun). Fortunately, the store owner did have an Army service pistol, and using it as a threat (he didn’t fire), he “persuaded” the shot-gunner to leave, then called the police, who soon had the shooter in custody.

On another occasion, just a couple of miles from home and while stuck in traffic, a deranged man tried to break into my car with the intent of doing bodily harm (he was screaming that he’d kill me, so I know his intent). The car doors were locked, so he jumped on the hood of my car and tried to kick the windshield in. It was frightening, but I was not at risk.

This madman was unarmed, he must have weighed 110 pounds dripping wet, and he had only one arm. I’m no giant, but it’s unlikely he could have killed me, even if he’d gotten through the windshield (he couldn’t). I had a pistol in my car, but I never even reached for it, as there was no plausible reason for believing I was at risk, and no case for deadly-force self-defense.

Two different situations, one with the use of deadly force justified, the other not. The man in Florida who shot Trayvon was faced with one of those two situations – and the question the law will have to face is this: Was he legitimately at risk of his life, and therefore justified to use deadly force to preserve his life? Or was he merely frightened by a situation that, while it looked dangerous to him, offered no real threat. A jury will decide that, but I think the facts we already know speak to what they will decide.

Having a weapon – and having a permit to carry a weapon (I have both) – impose an increased obligation on the individual who chooses to carry a firearm in self-defense. This obligation is hammered home in the mandatory training provided by licensed trainers in the state of Nevada. To obtain a Nevada CCW, in addition to a background check, you have to take and pass that course, and in that course you learn a lot about judgment, and the consequences of faulty judgment.

Self-defense is a God-given right; carrying a concealed weapon is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, and regulated by the states. But judgment is personal, and those who choose to carry arms must at all times display superior judgment.

Otherwise, they risk creating a situation that will forever end a life, and forever transform the lives of others – such as the transformation experienced by Trayvon’s parents (and what I experienced, though my son died in a car crash, not from gunfire). Having lived through that pain, I promise you that no-one ever wants to face the loss of a child, and having a conscience, I promise you that no price is worth the guilt and grief that shooter must now feel.

With rights come obligations – and to paraphrase the motto followed by comic book superhero Spider-Man, with great power (and a gun gives you great power) comes great responsibility.

Ned Barnett
Nevada Conservative


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