On Self Defense and the Cost of Victories

Like half of America and probably nearly all of the shooting world, I’m watching the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case with no small amount of interest. Whatever your take on the story, and whomever you believe is guilty or innocent of what, this much is fairly clearly true: Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had an encounter on an unseasonably cold and rainy right, Trayvon is dead, and life for George and his family will never be the same.

That’s the honest truth, because really there are two possibilities for George Zimmerman: An acquittal and the struggle to return to daily life in a country where a substantial percentage of the population is ready to crucify him, or a guilty verdict and a prison term, followed by the struggle to return to…well, you get the idea.

But, here’s the thing: Conviction or acquittal, Mr. Zimmerman’s life was inexorably changed that night. Presently, he’s in hiding, cut off from job and friends and probably family, facing incredible stress I can’t even imagine at, with his liberty on the line. He’s racking up what I imagine must be hundreds of thousands in legal fees. His friends, relatives, neighbors, community and country have all judged him. People in both the group ready to crucify him and those who believe he was justified in using deadly force will, for better or worse, never see him the same way again.

This is the part of using firearms for self-defense that people don’t think about. “If it’s a righteous shoot, you have nothing to worry about,” the Internet message forums say. “If you were justified in using deadly force, you’ll be fine.” Would that the real world were so simple.

Consider what happens to George Zimmerman if he’s acquitted. Suppose a jury decides the shooting was justified. Then what? He will leave jail and (presumably) go home to a community divides, to neighbors who don’t want to associate with him, to friends who shun him. Assuming he can finish his criminal justice degree and get a job as a cop (which I understand was his goal) he could well be paying off his legal fees for the rest of his life. Come what may, for better or worse, he will always bear the scarlet letter of “the man who shot Trayvon Martin”. What does that do to him psychologically? To his wife? To his children, if he has any now or in the future? How will he ever make up for the months spent behind bars?

When people say “don’t make the decision to use deadly force lightly,” this is part of what they mean. It’s not just about the moment when you’re in Condition Black fighting for survival. It’s about all the stuff that comes afterward. Just ask Larry Hickey (PDF). Caught in a violent 3-on-1 conflict in 2008, Larry went through three years of hell, two criminal trials (and two hung juries) and a civil lawsuit before the prosecutor dismissed the charges rather than retry him a third time. This is the real-life aftermath of a deadly force encounter. Win or lose, few people come out of an encounter with the criminal justice system unscathed.

If you carry a gun for self-defense, or if you plan to, this is part of what you need to be prepared for. You need to train for it, to plan for it, to work out in advance what you’ll do. Joining the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network, founded by Marty Hayes of the Firearms Academy of Seattle, would probably be a wise move. So would taking a course in both the tactical and legal aspects of armed self-defense. Mas Ayoob’s MAG-40 is one good example, though far from the only one.

Being prepared to use a firearm to save your life or the lives of your loved ones is a good thing, in my view. But you owe it to yourself and to them to be prepared for what comes afterward too. Otherwise, you may win the battle but lose the war.

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