Friday, March 23, 2012

Briefing for Friday, March 23, 2012

Things Are Not What They Seem

Sadly, human nature provides those of us in the CHL instructor ranks with new material to share with our students in an effort to help them appreciate the responsibilities of carrying a weapon for self defense.  Once again, Florida's most recent addition to the CHL syllabus comes to us at the tremendous expense of the life a young Miami teenager.

Most of you have heard the story (or some of the story, more accurately) about Trayvon Martin's tragic death in Sanford, Florida.  What's making this tragedy more so is the use of it by certain interest groups to promote a political agenda.

I will steer away from the political aspect of this all, but lest you be content in thinking the media is showing restraint, the commentators at MSNBC squarely laid the blame of this tragedy upon the collective consciousnesses of the Koch Brothers, the NRA, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, and those promoting Voter ID laws.  Such inflammatory comments clearly show a lack of restraint and civility in our political discourse allegedly desired by many at that particular news network. 

I blog about preparedness and self defense.  And so I am going to take a look at the evidence, as we know it, and try to see what lessons we can learn from this.

And let me say this before I go any further - I am not doing this to defend or condemn anyone.  It's my hope that we can gain some insights from this horrible story into how we might handle a potential self defense situation.  There are plenty of blogs where people are defending one guy and hating on the other.  That's not what this is about.  I'll be spending time with my CHL students talking about this incident, in an effort to teach them one thing:  the aftermath of an alleged self defense shooting is rarely as clean and neat as it is in the movies.

Here's what we know:

  • Trayvon Martin, a black teenager from Miami, was walking down the street in Sanford wearing a hoodie sweatshirt.
  • George Zimmerman was driving in the same area and called 911 to report a suspicious person.  You can hear his entire 911 phone call below:

  • From this call, we know:
    • Zimmerman was told to stop following Martin on foot.
    • Zimmerman described the subject as a black teenage male.
    • Zimmerman may - and I emphasize may - have made a racial slur about Martin during the call.  (I listened to the call about five times and couldn't hear it, so I checked out the CNN website for an audio enhanced version, which you can hear for yourself.)
  •  The Sanford Police Department gave information to the Orlando Sentinel, stating:
    • The prosecution, not the police department, made the decision not to charge Zimmerman.
    • Witnesses corroborated Zimmerman's story that Martin was on top of Zimmerman, punching Zimmerman in the head repeatedly, all while Zimmerman yelled out for help.
    • Zimmerman did get out of his car to follow Martin, but, according to Zimmerman, Martin was the aggressor in the attack leading up to the shooting.
    • Martin's father listened to the 911 call from the neighbor and told officers the voice crying out for help did not sound like his son (the inference being that it was Zimmerman's voice instead). Note a full 41 seconds elapses from the beginning of that 911 call until a shot is fired, during which someone - presumably Zimmerman - is yelling for help.

I'm sure there are many details which I am leaving out, some of which may paint a better or worse picture of each individual involved in this matter.  It's not my intent to convince you of any one's guilt or innocence.  It is my intent to help us all learn from this in the event we are put into a similar situation.

The Neighborhood Watch Discussion

First, let's address the issue of Zimmerman acting as a neighborhood watch participant.  I have participated in neighborhood watches.  And since I have a CHL, I did so while lawfully carrying a gun.  Note I don't carry my gun in order to effectuate an arrest or to stop crime.  I carry it to defend myself and family from any imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death.

Talk to the Department of Public Safety trainers in the CHL program.  They make it very clear: DPS views CHL holders in Texas as the sheepdogs of society.  We are expected to be, first and foremost, good citizens.  We are expected to follow all laws, be attentive witnesses, take good mental notes of what we see in the community, report suspicious people to 911, and yes, use deadly force in those instances where our lives are being jeopardized.

I've sat in multiple community meetings with the Austin Police Department during which APD made it very clear to us: if you see someone in your neighborhood you don't think belongs there, call 911.  They are that blunt about it.

And so when I read comments critical of Zimmerman's participation in neighborhood watches, I have to think it reflects a lack of understanding by those critics as to what neighborhood watch participants and CHL holders are asked to do while out and about in their communities by various law enforcement agencies.

"If Zimmerman Had Stayed in His Car, Martin Would Still Be Alive."

Let's not stop there.  "If Martin hadn't punched Zimmerman repeatedly for at least 41 seconds while Zimmerman yelled for help, Martin would still be alive." 

George Zimmerman clearly demonstrated terrible tactics by getting out of his car and not returning to it when told to stop following Martin by the 911 operator.  Following on foot someone you just described as "suspicious" to the 911 operator, whom you previously advised that there had been a number of crimes in the area, defies logic and common sense, especially if your life or the lives of your family are not at risk. 

Yet from what we know so far, Martin's actions - using deadly force on Zimmerman - is what caused Zimmerman to shoot Martin.

The 911 Tape Proves Zimmerman Is A Racist And Had It Out For Black People.

As I mentioned earlier, I strained to hear any racial slurs in the raw 911 call.  The washed version by CNN makes it clearer, but as the CNN correspondent said in the video, "I wouldn't swear to it in court." 

Let's stipulate for purposes of this discussion that Zimmerman is a racist and hates black people.  Does that negate the fact Martin was using deadly force on Zimmerman by punching Zimmerman in the head while Martin was on top of him?  Does that give Martin the license to do so?  Of course it doesn't. 

We may find out that Zimmerman is a member of the KKK before it's over with.  But at the end of the day, the evidence available to us thus far indicates Martin applied deadly force to Zimmerman, which in turn authorized Zimmerman to use deadly force in return.

What's missing here is evidence that Zimmerman used or threaten to use deadly force on Martin before Martin began hitting Zimmerman.  We may never find that evidence.  It may not exist.  If it does, it would validate the arguments of those claiming Zimmerman should be charged with manslaughter, if not murder.

The Stand Your Ground Law is at fault for this.

This law, more formally referred to as the Castle Doctrine, is generally misunderstood, even by many well meaning CHL instructors.  To wit: I had a CHL instructor once tell all of us in class the Castle Doctrine was named by is creator, a certain Mr. Castle.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

You get an earful on the Castle Doctrine in your Torts class during your first year of law school.  The Castle Doctrine is quite simple: Your home is your castle.  And in your castle, you have no duty to retreat.  A few years back, Florida expanded the Castle Doctrine to state that as long as you had a legal right to be where you are, you do not have to retreat before using deadly force to defend yourself.

Texas has a similar law.  It works to the benefit of the CHL holder.  And yet I stress to my students, that despite the law, if you can retreat  and protect yourself without having to threaten or use deadly force, by all means do it.  Retreating is a tactically sound option.  Was it an option here?  Unfortunately, we don't know.  We may never know.  But there's nothing I've read thus far to make me think Zimmerman broke the law by following Martin. 

Let me be clear on this:  I am not saying Zimmerman didn't break the law by following Martin.  I'm saying I have yet to hear of any evidence that what Zimmerman did in following Martin violated Florida law.  As more evidence comes out, this could be a game changer in his case.

Regardless of what evidence that comes out, I am hard pressed to understand how the Stand Your Ground law applies in this case.  If the law wasn't on the books, and Martin was pounding Zimmerman's head in, Zimmerman would not have had the ability to retreat before using deadly force.  Lacking that ability, Zimmerman would have been within his rights to use deadly force on Martin.

Conclusions and Learnings

I started this discussion by telling you I am not here to score the fight. I am sharing this with you so that those of you who are interested in self defense can learn from it.  Here are my takeaways:

  1. Tactics matter.  Don't leave the relative safety of your vehicle, with all the steel and thick glass surrounding you, if your life or that of your family's doesn't depend on it.
  2. Be a student of gunfights.  I don't mean to sound callous, but we can learn so much from a self defense standpoint when we study tragic events like these.  The best instructors I know study lots of gunfights.
  3. I spend 30 to 45 minutes in my CHL class discussing the effective use of 911.  Assume all 911 calls are recorded.  Assume they will end up on YouTube or enhanced by a audio engineer at CNN and broadcast to millions.  Assume prosecutors will look for every way to use your 911 recording to put you in jail.  Think about what you would say to 911 now, rather than in the heat of the fight. 
  4. Zimmerman's been lucky so far, relatively speaking.  He's not in jail.  No witnesses have come forward to say Zimmerman was the aggressor.   Assume everything you do in a self defense situation is being recorded on a security camera or on some one's iPhone.  Assume it will be on YouTube or the local news.  Let those concerns guide your words and actions.
  5. Be prepared for the aftermath of a shooting.  Be prepared to have the media and community leaders crucify you publicly.  Be prepared for the media to get the story wrong or omit key details.
  6. If you shoot a young person, especially one whose race is different than yours, be prepared to face allegations of racism. 

I begin my CHL class with the the comment that the course is all about problem avoidance.  Take steps to avoid having to use your gun.  Do everything you can to not have to use your firearm to defend yourself.  And if you elect to do so, make certain you can explain your actions so that even the most ardent critic cannot reasonably question your decision.

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