March 19, 2012
Tom Wolfe's classic 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities details the collapse of a rich New York bond trader's life after his car strikes and kills a black youth in the South Bronx. In vivid detail, it examines the interactions among race, class, politics and the media and takes a cynical look at what passes for justice these days.
Life seems to be imitating art in Florida, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman after passing through the latter's gated community.
The facts of the case are unclear, but it appears Zimmerman saw Martin in his neighborhood, confronted him, and after some level of struggle, shot him dead with a 9mm pistol.
Local authorities called the shooting self-defense and no charges were filed, but Martin's parents have fired up a media campaign demanding that state or federal officials charge him. Zimmerman has moved out of his house to avoid death threats, and rappers like Jay-Z have taken up the cause.
What are we to make of this incident? At the moment, it is being cast primarily in racial terms, but it's only a matter of time before big media turn it into a test case about concealed carry. Only the District of Columbia and Illinois flatly forbid concealed carry, though good luck trying it in New Jersey or most of California. The momentum on the issue has been entirely on our side in recent years.
This is the sort of case that could place a big bump in the road. It conforms to every stereotype bandied about gun owners: racist, trigger-happy vigilantes gunning for any wayward member of a minority group. The references to Death Wish and Dirty Harry are right around the corner.
I don't know enough about the incident to judge it. Neither do the newspaper columnists and rappers who are busy painting Zimmerman as some sort of Klansman with a pistol while portraying Martin as the "honor student" familiar from Bonfire.
What I do know is that this is the sort of borderline case that argues for great discretion when you are carrying concealed. No matter the real facts, concealed carriers are going to get a black eye from this incident. It reminds us that the caliber of your brain is a lot more important than the caliber of your gun.