Thursday , March 29, 2012 - 7:02 AM
ORLANDO, Fla. — In the roiling national debate over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, one group has been conspicuously quiet: gun owners.
The National Rifle Association has not issued a statement, despite growing criticism of its part in advocating for legislation such as Florida’s "stand your ground" law — which has come under increasing fire in the wake of the unarmed teen’s shooting by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
But online, proponents of carrying concealed weapons are participating in forums that reflect their concerns over the touchy subjects of race, gun laws and the need for facts in the most controversial shooting in recent memory.
Beginning with a single post March 17, gun owners from across the country responded to a member’s question on the USA Carry website about the Florida killing.
"My question is would the shooting have happened if the so-called black perp was white and, if so, do you think the shooting was justified?" asked Bounty Hunter, a fugitive-recovery agent from Utah in the thread’s opening post. "I just notice that there are more incidents where young black men are being targeted for violence just because they are black."
The 230-plus responses, which overwhelmingly criticized Zimmerman, came from shooting instructors, members of the NRA and others with online nicknames including CapGun, Deer Hunter and Old Grunt.
"Self-defense claims are pretty weak when you purposely put yourself into harm’s way," wrote Purple, who identified himself as an NRA Life Member from Washington state. "In this case not only did he do that, but having fear of someone’s potential is not justification for pulling a gun and then the trigger."
Through midday Monday on the forum’s 10th day, 42 of the 62 people posting comments faulted Zimmerman, 12 waited for more information and eight did not express their views. Those views began changing that day, after the Orlando Sentinel released the first details of Zimmerman’s self-defense claims to police.
The early responses focused on the few facts known about the shooting, which happened shortly after 7:15 p.m. Feb. 26 in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community in Sanford. They were based mostly on recordings of telephone calls to police, an incomplete incident report released by Sanford police and news coverage of Zimmerman’s volunteer role as a Neighborhood Watch captain.
Suspicious of media accounts, USA Carry members did their own online research — including looking into guidelines for Neighborhood Watch groups — and discussed when shooting is valid.
Many faulted Zimmerman for confronting Trayvon as the 17-year-old visitor from South Florida walked toward the home of his father’s fiancee inside the gated community. And they wrote that Zimmerman should have stopped following him after calling police to report a "suspicious" male and was told by a dispatcher that police were on the way and he needn’t follow anymore. Shortly after the call, residents heard a struggle and a single gunshot.
"I’m a Florida deputy in a neighboring county. Zimmerman is guilty of 1st-degree manslaughter at a minimum. I personally feel like this was an outright homicide!" wrote vkent718. "I feel for Trayvon’s family."
At some points, the thread morphed into whether a grand jury would find evidence to contradict the self-defense claim.
"Do I think Zimmerman was right? No. But stupidity is not against the law, sorry. To believe that it could not be a legitimate ’stand your ground’ ruling is INSANE," wrote Bttbbob of Palm Beach, a shooting instructor since 1976. "So far all the information that is available, ZIMMERMAN is a tool and guilty of being an idiot."
The most prolific writer, SGB of Tallahassee, posted more than 30 comments challenging assumptions by other USA Carry members who criticized Zimmerman.
"Well, you’re long on conjecture but it appears you’re short on FACTS as well as knowledge of Florida law," he wrote. "But, hey, that’s the trade mark of the lynch mob mentality, please carry on with your persecution."
The impact Trayvon’s death may have on Florida’s "stand your ground" law was discussed widely.
"Perhaps more evidence will surface ... but at this point he seems a bad example of responsible carry and a higher standard of care," commented The Dark, a Florida resident. "Those of us in Florida are now having to watch anti-gun and anti-stand-your-(ground) attempt to use this against us, a matter that is not expected."
Concern centered on how the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence would use Trayvon’s death to try to restrict gun ownership and quash efforts to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the U.S.
Of Trayvon’s death, the Brady Center wrote, "It is not a surprise that it happened in Florida, the NRA’s closest thing to an armed utopia. In fact ... George Zimmerman is the embodiment of the gun lobby and its vision for America."
Former NRA President Marion Hammer, a lobbyist credited with assuring that Florida legislators passed "stand your ground" in 2005, declined to predict whether the law will face a challenge in the next Legislature.
"There’s nothing wrong with the law. Putting the law on trial is a mistake," Hammer told a (Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel reporter. "It’s just wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the law."
The tone of the forum changed Monday after the Orlando Sentinel disclosed the first details of Zimmerman’s account to police of the shooting. In more than 30 posts since then, members of the thread previously critical of Zimmerman backed off.
"I was one who jumped to conclusions," wrote Danmc from Idaho in the first post after the new information. "I must confess that I am going to have to recant my vigilante frame of mind towards Zimmerman and wait for ALL THE FACTS to come out."
The information came from Zimmerman’s interviews and re-enactments with Sanford police, based on information from law-enforcement sources.
Zimmerman told police he was walking to his SUV when the teen came from behind, punched him in the nose, knocked him to the ground and began striking his head against a sidewalk. Saying he first called for help, Zimmerman told police he shot Trayvon in self-defense.
No independent eyewitness account exists of how the fight Zimmerman described began.
BC1, a shooting instructor from New York, summed up many posters’ thoughts:
"So what can we learn from this incident?" he wrote Tuesday. "Posters need to understand that in the event they use a gun in self-defense, whether they are right or wrong it will probably ruin their life. I learned this long ago from (self-defense instructor and author) Mas Ayoob.
"This case is an opportunity for people to understand what happens when they use deadly force."
(Kathleen Haughney of the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel contributed to this report.)
(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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