Updated: August 16, 2013 6:35AM
Many commentators have asked us to imagine the Zimmerman case with different facts: What if George Zimmerman was black? What if Trayvon Martin was white? What if Trayvon could tell his side of the story?
But the question we should be asking is: What if George Zimmerman didn’t have a gun?
If Zimmerman wasn’t armed, we can imagine that the encounter might have gone very differently. Or there might not have been an encounter at all. If Zimmerman wasn’t armed, would he have felt as confident getting out of his car to follow Trayvon? Or would he have followed the advice of the 911 dispatcher and let the authorities respond?
One thing seems painfully obvious: If Zimmerman didn’t have a gun, he wouldn’t have shot to death an unarmed 17-year-old, leaving behind a grieving family and a community forever scarred.
Of course, George Zimmerman did have a gun, and a boy is dead. When guns are on the scene, violence is more likely to become lethal violence. A fist fight becomes a trip to the morgue.
The evidence presented in the Zimmerman trial may have been murky. But the evidence of the role that guns play in our levels of violence in the U.S. is clear. Dozens of studies show that where guns are more readily available, there are more incidents of gun homicide, as well as suicide and accidental shootings.
A 2012 study by psychologists James Brockmole and Jessica Witt found that carrying a gun makes the carrier more likely to perceive that the other party in an encounter is also carrying a gun, and as a result, to engage in threat-induced behavior.
Research also shows that states that have very permissive concealed weapons laws, like Florida does, have higher rates of gun violence. And although the Zimmerman case ultimately did not involve Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, researchers from Texas A&M found that states that have passed such laws making it easier to use a gun in self defense have more murders.
Laws affect behavior. Some laws criminalize certain conduct to deter people from acting in ways that are harmful to society. Other laws enable conduct. In Florida and in other states, we have made it easier and easier for firearm owners to take their guns anywhere and everywhere. And people who carry guns sometimes use them. And sometimes innocent teenagers die.
By considering the question “what if George Zimmerman wasn’t armed,” we are forced to consider whether we are better off living in communities where more and more people carry guns and feel empowered to use them. Regardless of the jury’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial, the overwhelming evidence shows that we are not.
Gun rights advocates argue that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The George Zimmerman case underscores the fallacy of this argument. Until he shot and killed an unarmed teenager, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman saw himself the quintessential good guy with a gun.
There are countless other examples every year of “good guys with guns” making bad decisions that cost children their lives. Gun owners sell guns in private sales without a background check to felons or domestic abusers. They fail to lock up their guns, and they are stolen in burglaries and used by gangs in drive-by shootings. Or they are found by children who accidentally shoot their siblings. They are taken by family members who are mentally troubled, and used to commit suicide or even to kill innocent children in their classrooms.
While we’re at it, let’s also ask ourselves whether we as a society are doing all we can to prevent these tragic outcomes. Again, the answer is obvious.
Nina Vinik is program director for the Joyce Fundation’s Gun Violence Prevention Program.