A Double Standard for Gun Use

George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander highlight the maddening murkiness of gun laws.

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Two Floridians accused of misbehaving with a gun are out on bond. The similarities end there.

George Zimmerman, who famously shot and killed an unarmed teenager in a racially-charged case, was acquitted of the killing because jurors determined he acted in self-defense. No one can know exactly what transpired when Zimmerman and young Trayvon Martin tussled on the street in the twilight, but we do know that Zimmerman got out of his car to follow or confront Martin before the shooting.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

And if Zimmerman (whose previous aggressive behavior was not disclosed to the jury) was trying to convince the world he is simply a gentle, law-abiding person who felt threatened and shot a dangerous teenager, he's blown that strategy. Since the acquittal, Zimmerman has posed for pictures at a gun manufacturer, been arrested for speeding (seeming stunned when the officer didn't recognize him) and gotten into a domestic dispute with his estranged wife. And recently, Zimmerman was at it again, charged with pointing a gun at his girlfriend, breaking a glass table, forcing her out of her home and barricading himself in the house. Perhaps more telling, Zimmerman then called 911 himself – even though police were already on the way – to, as he said, tell his side of the story. He called his girlfriend "crazy."

That she may be, colloquially speaking, given her decision to get involved with someone with a violent past. But the event certainly indicates a pattern, one in which Zimmerman uses guns to get his way. He's out on $9,000 bond as he awaits the adjudication of the domestic abuse case (and has asked for police to return his phones, flashlight and knife).

Another Floridian, Marissa Alexander, has not had it so easy.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

Alexander, too, is now out on bond in a case involving alleged domestic violence. But she'd been in jail since last year waiting for it.

Alexander says she, too, was feeling threatened by her husband when she fired what she said was a "warning shot" to fend him off. The bullet hit a wall and no one was hurt, but Alexander was nonetheless sentenced to a mandatory 20 years behind bars for her behavior. The judge rejected her assertion of Florida's "stand your ground" law, saying that Alexander could have simply run off instead of going to fetch her gun.

That sounds reasonable – except this: Why is it that Zimmerman, after calling police to report the allegedly suspect Martin, nonetheless got out of his car to follow the teenager? Zimmerman isn't a police officer (though it's clear he wanted to be one). He could have not just run away, but actually driven away, to avoid a confrontation. Nor was there any indication Martin had ever threatened Zimmerman before that time.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Are 'Stand Your Ground' Laws a Good Idea?]

So why would Alexander get 20 years in prison while Zimmerman was let free to point his gun, again, at another person? Certainly, juries react differently to different people and circumstances (and race and gender, too). But in this case, the culprit is not the peculiarity of the juries. It's a set of gun laws that are far too murky for anyone – be it the carrier of the gun or the jury judging him or her – to determine when it's OK to defend yourself with a gun and when it is not.

Alexander was released on bond last week as she awaits a new trial on the gun charge. She'll be under house arrest and electronic monitoring. Zimmerman, meanwhile, is readying for another episode of the Zimmerman Show – a storyline that is getting alarmingly predictable.

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