George Zimmerman's Ammunition

Reuters has put together a pretty sympathetic background piece about George Zimmerman, one that sets out to paint a "more nuanced" picture of him than his critics have painted. It depicts him not as some gun-toting yahoo with a Dirty Harry complex, but more as a guy who was drawn by happenstance down the path that led to Trayvon Martin.

We learn, for example, that Zimmerman first got a gun not to shoot people, but because a neighborhood pit bull kept getting loose, and an animal control officer warned that pepper spray wouldn't be enough to keep the dog at bay. Then there was the rash of neighborhood robberies, and witnesses identified the culprits as young black males. So (the article implies) it wasn't irrational for Zimmerman to suspect an unfamiliar young black male of being up to no good.

This is valuable reporting. With the exception of true psychopaths, people who are demonized almost always turn out to be surprisingly human, and one mission of journalism is to help us appreciate that fact--to help us put ourselves in the shoes of "the other."

Who knows, for example, how I'd react if there was a sense of siege in my neighborhood--with property values plummeting and reason to believe that a crime wave was partly responsible? Maybe, when you read the Reuters piece, you'll think Zimmerman's environment was sufficiently menacing to justify doing what the piece says he did: routinely violate "neighborhood watch" guidelines by carrying a gun on his patrols.

Still, the piece also suggests that Zimmerman had the kind of impulse control problem that would make you just as soon he not walk around with a gun. A former fiancée had filed for a restraining order, alleging domestic violence. Zimmerman had also been arrested and charged with battery against an undercover alcohol-control agent.

And then there's the part of the story the Reuters piece doesn't address: According to other reports, Zimmerman's gun was loaded with hollow-point bullets--bullets that expand upon impact, maximizing internal damage and the chances of death. You don't need hollow-point bullets to stop a pit bull. And you don't need hollow-point bullets to stop a robber.

Sure, some gun enthusiasts may warn that if you face an armed bad guy, hollow points minimize the chances of his returning fire after being shot. But how likely is it--in real life, not the movies--that this would actually come into play? And, anyway, there was no evidence that the robbers who had afflicted the neighborhood were armed; they were burglars, not muggers, and when in danger of being caught they'd fled. (And as for the reason police sometimes use hollow points--to cut the chances that the bullet will harm bystanders after passing through the victim's body or after ricocheting: that makes a lot of sense in a crowded urban environment, but not much in Zimmerman's neighborhood.)

The logic of this Reuters piece cuts two ways. If Zimmerman had in mind a profile of the neighborhood burglars as young black males, then, yes, it's likely that he honestly believed Trayvon Martin was a criminal. But that also means that, on those nights when he patrolled the neighborhood, looking for would-be burglars, he probably had in mind the prospect of confronting a young black man. What we'll never know is whether that prospect had anything to do with the fact that Zimmerman chose not just to carry a gun, but to load it with the kind of bullet that was most likely to kill anyone he shot.