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Gun ownership sacrosanct

April 13, 2012

In February, an unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. The man has been charged with second-degree murder, but the incident is not likely to change liberal gun laws in the US.

Headshots of George Zimmerman (right) and Trayvon Martin
Image: Reuters

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black American, was on his way home when he became a target of George Zimmerman.

Because the youth seemed "suspect" to him, Zimmerman, a member of an armed neighborhood watch group, decided to follow him. The situation then apparently escalated, and Zimmerman and shot and killed Martin.

Police summoned to the scene first checked whether the victim had a criminal record. Zimmerman, who claimed to have acted in self-defense, was allowed to walk free, in accordance with Florida law, as gun laws in the state are - even by American standards - particularly "generous."

'Stand your ground'

In this case, the so-called "stand your ground" law on self-defense applies, says Christian Lammert, a political scientist at the John F. Kennedy Institute at Berlin's Free University.

Civil rights activists and protesters gather on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall
Black Americans have called for a judicial inquiryImage: Reuters

"The law allows every American to confront anyone with a firearm, if he feels threatened by that person," said Lammert.

Florida is not the only state in which the use of firearms is justified in this way. And the US Supreme Court has in the past also lifted restrictions on handling weapons.

Racism and violence

That the Trayvon Martin case has once again brought up a possible review of the right to self-defense can be attributed to the combination of violence and racism. Zimmerman, a white man, labeled Martin as "suspicious" on first glance, without any further evidence, and used a derogatory expletive and racial slur to describe the boy.

For weeks, black Americans have protested publicly for a judicial inquiry into the case. They have the facts on their side when they complain that the American police tend to be racist.

"Black Americans are more frequently subject to police checks, and violence is also more frequently used against them," said Lammert.

Powerful lobby force

Responding to the shooting, President Barack Obama made an emotional address to the nation. "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin," he said, calling for a national "soul searching" over what he called a "tragedy."

Attorney General Eric Holder
Holder backs stronger gun laws in the USImage: AP

US Attorney General Eric Holder, also a black American, went a step further. He ordered an investigation into whether Zimmerman shot Martin out of self-defense or out of racist motives.

Holder has backed a tightening of gun laws for years. Lammert, however, does not believe that the Trayvon Martin case will lead to a rethink of American policy.

"The gun lobby in America is so strong that weapons laws have actually been liberalized further," he said. Gun supporters also have the backing of private security companies, which are widespread in America and have police powers and public order responsibilities.

Defense of individualism lives on

But it's not only the lobbying of special interest groups that keep the permissive gun laws in the US in place. The majority of the population – confirmed in poll after poll – firmly supports their constitutional right to bear arms.

"The right to defend oneself is one of the fundamental constants of American identity," said Lammert, referring to American history. The tradition of self-defense and self-determination that began even before American independence survive to the present day.

Author: Rachel Gessat / cmk
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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