On the Zimmerman trial: the verdict is in, now we can look for lessons learned.

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I’ve avoided discussing this until the trial was finished, as I knew that we’d not gotten all the facts in the matter. Today we at least know that the jury saw no reason to convict him of a crime, and at this point he is a free man. That may change, as the federal government is making noises about a civil rights indictment, but so far it’s just saber rattling.

There are three aspects of the case which interest me, because they have a direct impact on the legally armed citizen. The first concerns the myth of the “clean shoot”; second, the realities of political-motivated prosecutions; and finally, how our legitimate and legal activities might contribute to such an incident.

I’ve written many times about the idea of the “clean shoot”, and each time I’ve said that there is no such thing. This case is yet another example. Many internet forums promote the idea that if the shoot is “clean”, nothing else matters. According to this myth the gun you use, the ammunition in it, your demeanor, your previous actions and comments don’t matter. All that matters is if the shoot is a “good” one.

As I’ve also said, it’s not up to you, me or the keyboard commando hiding behind a pseudonym in a gun forum who gets to decide that. Ultimately someone else will, and that person is likely to be a judge or, collectively, a jury. How they decide whether it is justifiable may hinge on their perceptions of your personality – and they may be antagonistic to you or your exercise of your right of self defense.

Everything related to a shooting is fair game in the courtroom, whether you think it should be or not. Again, there is no such thing as a clean shoot until it’s judged that way by someone else, and everything related to it will impact that judgement. The prosecution did everything they could to implicate all of Zimmerman’s pre-incident activity, to try to prove that he was an inherently evil individual who was simply frothing at the mouth to kill someone. If you watched any of the trial, you saw those prosecutorial antics — and they should give you serious pause.

Carry extra-hot handloads with competition-light triggers and put Punisher emblems on your gun’s grips if you want, but I certainly wouldn’t want to try to explain those in the kind of courtroom Zimmerman faced! At best they’re unnecessary distractions, and at worst they might just push a juror over the edge to vote ‘guilty’.

I can hear the refrain already: “they can use anything against you, so why worry about it?” My position is the opposite: why give them additional ammunition that you don’t need to, especially when it might be the one little thing which cements your presumed guilt? A trial is never just about objective, unemotional facts; you’re dealing with the perceptions, preconceptions, prejudices, and personalities of other people. How they view things is likely to be very different than how you do.

This will be especially true if, like Zimmerman, you face a politically motivated prosecution. It doesn’t just happen with nationally reported cases, either! If your local DA is wrangling for a higher office, he or she might bring cases to trial in an effort to curry favor with the voters. (They may also bring certain cases in an attempt to silence certain segments of the public. It happens.)

This case should be a sobering lesson to all of us. Even if you do everything right, even if your response was as clean as the driven snow, you can still become a victim of political pressure. We’ve learned from the former police chief in Zimmerman’s town that when he refused to arrest Zimmerman (due to lack of evidence), he came under intense pressure from the powers-that-be. He was ultimately fired for refusing to subordinate justice to public opinion. The case was taken from the local DA and given to the state’s “special prosecutor” because of the political pressure to get a conviction. Lots of people in high places wanted a conviction at any cost, regardless of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, and they nearly got their wish.

When you have a prosecutor who wants to climb the political ladder combined with national political pressure and a frenzied public, an unmeritorious prosecution is bound to occur. Anyone can become a scapegoat if the sociopolitical stars are aligned in just the right way, and small imperfections in the case can become the fissures under which justice crumbles.

Should this keep you from carrying or owning a firearm for protection? Certainly not, but it should cause you to pause and consider your habits and training. Aside from knowing how to defend yourself (using tools or hands), you also need to know how to navigate the legal system should you find yourself having to use lethal force.

I strongly urge everyone to do two things: first, take MAG-20 from Massad Ayoob. That class is truly the gold standard for judicious use of lethal force, and had Zimmerman taken that class I’m confident he would have handled the incident very differently. It wouldn’t have forestalled the political prosecution, mind you, but it would have left them with even less evidence than they actually had. MAG-20 is one of the very few classes that I think you should consider as being mandatory.

The second thing is to back that education up with a membership in the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network. This organization serves to both educate and protect the rights of the person who is forced to use a gun in self defense. Check out their benefits, and then hit the “join” button.

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion about Zimmerman’s culpability in the incident. This discussion invariably revolves around how he could have prevented the shooting, and usually concludes that had Zimmerman not gotten out of his car to keep tabs on Martin he wouldn’t have been attacked and forced to shoot.

I acknowledge that the statement is likely true, but it would also be true to say he could have avoided the entire incident — and all plausible variations — by not getting out of bed that morning. Silly? Yes, but I hope it makes something clear: sometimes even the most innocuous things lead to horrendous results.

Was it reasonable for Zimmerman to have gotten out of his car to get an address and continue his surveillance of a suspicious person? Given participation in his neighborhood watch program, his course of action seems reasonable: watch and report, which is apparently what he was doing.

Did he expose himself to danger? In retrospect, yes. Was that foreseeable? I’m not as sure.

Let’s say I live in a two-story house (I don’t, but I did grow up in one.) If I hear a noise downstairs I have two choices: investigate, or barricade, arm and call the police. If I chose the latter course of action it wouldn’t be long before the police refused to answer my calls. Why? Because suspicious things happen constantly, and the vast, overwhelming amount of the time they turn out to be nothing. It’s a very small numbers of incidents where something dangerous occurs.

Fact is, if I were in that position I’d more than likely do downstairs and find out what the noise is. The majority of time it’s going to be one of the kids in the refrigerator, or the cat knocking something over, or the wind blowing an open screen door shut, or something else just as common and just as harmless. In fact, I might go my whole life doing that and never finding anything sinister.

In the case of someone on a neighborhood watch committee, I suspect the same thing is true: the majority of the times they observe someone, it turns out to be nothing sinister. (I realize that this varies from place to place, and perhaps in that neighborhood violence was more common.) Getting out of a car, in an effort to keep an eye on someone, is likely (according to what I know about such watch programs) a completely reasonable course of action.

I acknowledge that staying in his car would have prevented the incident, but I’m not so presumptuous as to say that’s always the best course of action. It’s not just because of the waste of scarce police resources, either. In the macro sense, we see what happens when people hide behind their locked doors and wait for someone else to do something: dilapidated, crime infested neighborhoods (sometimes entire towns.) The people who live in such places need to be invested in their own security, need to take ownership of it, if they are to keep their neighborhoods fit places to live. Relying exclusively on a police presence that may never appear (ask anyone who lives in an unincorporated area, or in Detroit) means that the criminal element ultimately has free reign to commit its crimes.

If one lives in a community with good police response, it’s very easy to say that he should have simply waited in his car for the good guys to arrive. I don’t know what his community is like in that regard, and so I’m unwilling to make a blanket statement about what he should have done without knowing a lot more about what he and his fellow citizens were facing.

I have, admittedly, a slightly different perspective on this than many others in the training business. A county in my own state recently made news (on which I’ve commented) because their Sheriffs Office no longer has the money to do regular patrols. Those people don’t have the luxury of waiting in their cars until the boys (and girls) in blue arrive to take charge of the scene. If there’s a suspicious person, those residents are forced to deal with the situation themselves. The alternative is to let their county be overrun with crime. They need the tools (training and knowledge) to know how to deal with the situations they face and any potential aftermath.

That, I think, is really where Zimmerman failed. He didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to competently handle what he was doing, the incident itself, or what followed. To me, this is the most important lesson: if you’re going to carry a gun, get educated. Now would be a very good time!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Update, late 2014: It’s become pretty clear to all of us who watch these things that Zimmerman seems to be a magnet for untoward events. Whether it’s because he’s an idiot or just because of his notoriety is hard to tell – probably a little of both – but it’s obvious that he’s going to be in trouble again in the future. His personal demons aside, the facts of the case as presented in the courtroom haven’t changed and the lessons learned from his prosecution remain as valid today as they did when I originally wrote this piece in 2013.

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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