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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Oscar, George And Wayne's World

Matt Pressberg |
February 18, 2013 | 8:12 p.m. PST


Wayne LaPierre's world is a trigger-happy one. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Wayne LaPierre's world is a trigger-happy one. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Wayne LaPierre’s parents apparently never told him the monsters in the closet weren’t real.

In Wayne’s World, Mexican drug gangs run the streets of our large cities and al-Qaeda terrorists lurk right across the border. Looters go pillaging when natural disasters strike, and the streets become a death zone when the sun goes down. The only way to survive in this time of chaos is to Stand and Fight. Your life depends on it.

Wayne, who when not writing bad sci-fi serves as the CEO of the National Rifle Association, has quite the imagination. The America he describes is certainly not a place I’d want to live, but the good thing is that it does not exist. However, the mentality behind such hallucinations most certainly does and it’s hardly limited to firebrand firearm execs.

On Valentine’s Day, and almost exactly one year after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin at a Sanford, Fla. townhome complex, South African Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at 3 a.m at his Pretoria home. We don’t know what happened in either case, but we do know that in each one, an unarmed person died at the hands of a paranoid gun owner who had repeatedly expressed worries about crime.

Whether these fears were exaggerated is debatable, but they were not completely unfounded. Sanford, Florida is not Beverly Hills. South Africa has a murder rate of over 30 per 100,000 (the U.S. is 4.8) and is, according to the U.S. State Department, a place where “violent crimes such as armed robbery, carjacking, mugging, "smash-and-grab" attacks on vehicles, and other incidents are still common.”

Zimmerman and Pistorius had expressed carrying with them a certain sense of responsibility to take the law into their own hands in order to adequately protect themselves and in their minds, maintain a safer community. The combination of easily available weapons and a low threshold for using them turned into a deadly one, but they lived this way—and Trayvon Martin and Reeva Steenkamp died as a result—because they felt they had to. Context is everything.

This is what happens when paranoid people who see a ghost around every corner feel the need to enforce justice. I will never question the right to keep a weapon in the home as last resort protection (because there is some truth to “when seconds count, the police are only minutes away”), but it’s sad and somewhat reckless that some gun owners have lost confidence in law enforcement to such a degree (and many people are to blame for this) that they feel a need to chamber a round and aim at shadows every time the water heater makes a sound.

Serious people can quantify crime risk with statistical analyses, but on the primal level where life and death choices are made, stats don’t matter. Safety is a personal, “feelings” thing. Some people feel safe in Sinaloa. Others feel scared in Bel-Air. It really is all relative.

Pistorius and Zimmerman clearly didn’t feel safe. They were nervous and tense, and tense and nervous people make mistakes. They made tragic ones.

When effective law enforcement—and even more so, the perception of it—declines to the level it has in South Africa, and to a somewhat lesser extent, certain parts of America, different rules of engagement tend to emerge. If a stranger approaches you in Midtown Manhattan or Des Moines, you probably don’t automatically assume he has bad intentions. Someone approaching your car in Johannesburg or San Pedro Sula just does not get that same benefit of the doubt—from locals and visitors alike.

Wayne wants us to think that America is this dangerous too, that criminals from “south Brooklyn” are right around the corner, coming to steal our belongings, destroy our neighborhoods and defile our daughters. Peddling fear like this may be good (if utterly transparent) business for gun sellers, but it just scares mentally weak people and reinforces a completely irresponsible “shoot first in the name of safety” mentality. Those are the rules in northern Mali right now, not in peacetime America.

To be fair, the United States isn’t exactly Disneyland. Violent crime in this country tends to be relatively high compared with others in our developmental peer group, and we all know we have too many shootings of all varieties.

There’s also been a geographical shift in crime. As urban centers have gentrified, a lot of crime has been pushed out into formerly sleepy suburban-type places like, oh, Sanford, Fla. Also, the housing crisis tagged a lot of these suburbs harder than cities, so more transient types had a chance to move in as landlords got desperate. Our city-raised, centralized police structures often find themselves inadequate in dealing with whack-a-mole criminals spread out across a wider board.

It’s even harder to effectively police the streets when municipal budgets are on the chopping block, in many cases due to a combination of political cowardice from the left and political nihilism from the right. Conservative ideologues need to realize that running a government is not like manufacturing cocaine: you can’t cut your way to windfall revenues. Certain big-city liberal politicians need to realize that structural pension and benefits reform is needed; cities owe their retirees a certain suite of benefits, but they can’t let bad deals cut by ex-politicians fund Cadillac retirement plans while the streets (literally) crumble.

George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin’s Sanford was and is one of those places that civic engagement left behind. Suburban central Florida was one of the hardest-hit places by housing crash, and the complex where Martin’s father and Zimmerman and his wife lived was no different. Many of the townhomes were in foreclosure or owned by people who were underwater in their mortgages—some who only owned these homes as investment properties—and neighbors reported seeing newcomers they viewed suspiciously that accompanied an uptick in crime.

Branding some of these new faces as “Trayvon-like dudes with their pants down”, as one neighbor did to the New York Times, is obviously indicative of racial bias, but bias is perception and in safety, perception is reality. People in the complex felt like civic institutions were failing, which motivated the homeowners association to set up a neighborhood watch. This ended up with the community’s elected neighborhood watch coordinator, one George Zimmerman, taking the law into his own hands and ending up with a “Trayvon-like dude” lying dead in a courtyard.

Oscar Pistorius, a resident of one of the most secure housing developments in South Africa but a man who still drew a weapon at a washing machine, also felt the need to ensure his security himself. Despite the 24-hour manned guard gate and security fencing, he couldn’t take any chances, and thus fired his 9mm pistol in the fog of night and killed his girlfriend.

Responsible gun ownership can save lives, but paranoid gun ownership can needlessly end them. Zimmerman and Pistorius were living in Wayne’s World. Martin and Steenkamp died in it.

Read more of Neon Tommy’s coverage of Oscar Pistorius here.

Read more of Neon Tommy’s coverage of Trayvon Martin here.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



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