Gun laws begin with public discussion

Combine Florida’s self-defense and concealed carry laws with the facts of the murder trial of George Zimmerman, and it’s understandable how the jury of six women arrived at a not guilty verdict. And yet, it’s equally clear that justice was not done in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

When two human beings get into a violent physical altercation, and one person dies, someone must be held accountable. Both individuals might share the blame to a lesser or greater degree, but culpability for the tragic outcome must reside somewhere. Not in Florida, apparently.

There is no doubt that Zimmerman created the situation in which he felt threatened. He joined a neighborhood watch group, put a handgun in his waistband and went on patrol looking for “punks,” as he called them.

When he found one, he hunted down the black teenager in a hoodie, ignoring clear directions from police to stay in his car, and started a confrontation with a kid out for snacks.

In most states, that would have been enough evidence to hold Zimmerman accountable at some level for Martin’s death. But in the 24 states with a version of Florida’s Stand Your Guard law, responsibility becomes a murky issue.

We’ll never know if Zimmerman intentionally sought out a situation to fire his firearm, knowing the law would exonerate him. We’ll never know if Zimmerman harbored racist feelings, or what role racist profiling played in his decision to stalk his victim.

We shouldn’t have to know. Our laws should not allow — much less encourage — amateur police officers to roam our neighborhoods with guns deciding who is and who isn’t a suspicious character. Wannabe cops shouldn’t ignore the orders given by professional law enforcement officers.

Do we really want to turn our streets back into the Wild West? Is it really that easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Zimmerman may be not guilty under Florida law, but he should be held accountable.

The federal Department of Justice may pursue a civil rights case or the family may file a civil suit. That’s up to them.

What we can all do is have a public conversation about our rules of engagement for law and order, and elect people who will put those values into state legislation. We doubt Washingtonians would think Florida provides an acceptable model.