In the Arena

Trayvon Martin: The Debate We’re Not Having

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In my print column this week, which is available to TIME subscribers here, I write about the Trayvon Martin case and the debate we should be having–about guns, not race. We may never know if race was George Zimmerman’s motivation when he killed Martin, but we can be almost positive that Martin would be alive today if Zimmerman hadn’t been carrying a gun. And yet, we’re not having a debate about this country’s foolish gun laws, even though we seem to have a massacre a month–and, I believe, both parties are complicit in this travesty.

The Republicans are, of course, more complicit. Not only have they championed the National Rifle Association’s untrammeled gun fetishism, they–or at least, the Limbaugh-Drudge segment of the party–have pitched woo to a hate-fueled minority of wingnuts who see the President as the exemplar of a new America they don’t like. On the day that Obama said that if he had a son, the boy might look like Trayvon Martin, Rick Santorum went to a shooting range in Louisiana and fired an semi-automatic pistol at a target. “Pretend it’s Obama,” a woman shouted out–the sort of comment that has become near-routine among Republican audiences. Santorum condemned the remark, but he and, especially, Newt Gingrich are constantly winking-and-nodding subtle messages about Obama being not quite American.

But the Democrats have played a role in this, too. There is the reflexive descent, after a 20 year hiatus, into divisive, racialist politics by Al Sharpton and others (which is exactly the sort of carnival that the Limbaugh-Drudge wing loves). The fact is, events like the Martin killing are exceedingly rare; most African Americans who are the victims of gun violence are shot by other African Americans. But far more important: the Democrats have pretty much abandoned the field on gun control. The root of this craven retreat was the clobbering congressional Democrats received at the polls in 1994 when dozens of southern and western representatives were wiped out, in part, by advertising campaigns ginned up by the National Rifle Association. There haven’t been many attempts to put some sane restrictions on gun ownership since then; indeed, with the proliferation of concealed carry and “Stand Your Ground” laws, things have gotten much worse. Yes, the Second Amendment is pretty clear on the subject of gun ownership, but no right granted in the Constitution–not even Freedom of Speech–is entirely unlimited. As a society, we have every right to make sure that guns are sold and used with certain restraints. I’m not sure, for example, that the Founders contemplated a right to bear assault weapons and semi-automatic pistols.

President Obama could have used this opportunity to say something about gun violence–which is the second leading cause of death among young people–but he didn’t. What a shame.