On Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida there was a shooting that would, for whatever reason, transfix this country and pressure how we as a nation understand our natural right to self-defense. I am of course referring to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
It’s not my intention here to pour over the details of this case — I’m sure we have all heard those, time and time again. I personally have no desire to hear them again. Rather, I want to look at what we can learn, as a community of gun owners and concealed carry holders, from this case and how we can use these lessons to avoid the legal pitfalls along our path to personal security and happiness.
Knowing (it’s half the battle)
Let me say right up front that I am certainly not a lawyer or legal expert. Nor do I have every state’s carry and defensive gun use (DGU) laws memorized. Chances are you don’t either, so I think one big take away from the Zimmerman case is the first thing — and I mean the very first thing — you should do before taking your defensive handgun out of the house is to look up and understand any state laws governing where and how to carry as well as any self defense laws that may come to bear in the aftermath of a self-defense shooting. In 2013, this is as important to self-defense as knowing how to shoot accurately.
Here in New York we have Article 35 of the Penal Law, known as the Defense of Justification. This is the law that every handgun owner should know inside and out in New York State and you should know your state’s equivalent laws backwards and forwards if you plan to defend yourself.
Apples and oranges are both fruit
I don’t have much of anything in my past that resembles the self-defense shooting of Trayvon Martin, but I have had to talk to the police before after firing my weapon. Here’s something that happened to me half a year ago that almost had me led away in cuffs.
I was on my way home from work on a deserted stretch of back road in December at around midnight when a deer ran in front of me and I clobbered it with my jeep. I stopped and saw a four-point buck lying in the road with a pool of blood coming from its nose and mouth, a big gash on its face and a bottom part of its jaw missing.
He appeared to be dead so I tapped him several times and then grabbed him by the antlers and drug him out of the road. Then he suddenly tried to stand up and I backed off. He was in bad shape — nothing seemed to work for him and he struggled against the ground, bleeding. I was in the middle of nowhere. There were no houses and I had no cell phone service, but I did have my .357 Magnum on me, so I shot the deer in the base of the neck where the skull and spine join. The deer fell over dead on the spot.
A few minutes later a volunteer firefighter arrived who had his radio in his truck and he called for help. That help arrived in the form of two New York State Troopers, who promptly took my gun, put me in cuffs and placed me in the back seat of their car. I had my pistol permit as well as my badge and department identification. They said they had no issue with shooting the deer in so much as I had told them my story, they were just not convinced I had hit it first since my jeep had a few dents here and there and they could find no blood or hair. For nearly two hours they questioned me on the spot, telling me to tell them the truth, something along the lines that I had pulled up and shot the deer. I remained calm, knowing arguing and raising my voice would only get me to the barracks a little faster.
Finally a Conservation Officer arrived. We found parts of my jeep that had been broken off quite a few feet away on the far side of the road in the ditch. In the end the troopers apologized and the deer was tagged and I took it home. I don’t fault them because of what the situation looked like to them, but I also wasn’t jacking a deer.
Tell the truth
So what the heck does this all have to do with the Zimmerman case? Well, what I can tell you is that anytime the police are involved in an incident involving you and a gun, you had better be up front and honest with the guys wearing the badges. Telling a calm and consistent story after the incident was instrumental to a just outcome in the Zimmerman case as it was in mine and as it is in most — no matter how “unjust” the investigation may have seemed to anybody at the time. If you withhold anything from them or lie, rest assured that everything you say after will be second-guessed and thought tainted. One half-truth can make your life a total nightmare.
Getting emotional with the cops won’t get you anywhere either, but that doesn’t mean you need to agree with everything they say. Stick to your guns and keep telling them the truth. Zimmerman’s story changed very little from the night of the shooting to the day he was found not guilty. I must have told those troopers a dozen times how the accident happened, and that I did shoot the deer. I even showed them my cell phone to prove I had no service. Why did they keep asking me the same thing over and over again? To see if my story changed each time I told it. So maybe a better piece of advice would be to say if you end up in one of these situations, keep your answers both simple and truthful.