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The Ghost of George Zimmerman Haunts a Gun Debate in Sanford, Florida

The Ghost of George Zimmerman Haunts a Gun Debate in Sanford, Florida

His name was not uttered during official proceedings, nor that of the 17-year-old boy whose life he took on a dark, rainy evening 20 months ago.

Yet the shadow of George Zimmerman, and lessons learned from his February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, loomed large as members of the Florida community where the incident took place met with police chief Cecil E.Smith last night to help set their broken Neighborhood Watch operation back on the tracks.

Part of an ongoing crime-fighting overhaul being led by Smith, who came to the post seven months ago after his predecessor was fired for mishandling the Zimmerman case, the revamping of Sanford’s Neighborhood Watch is heavy with symbolism even if the chief would prefer it not to be so.

“When people hear the term ‘Neighborhood Watch captain,’ I think they just think of George Zimmerman straight away,” says Patty Parker, herself a Neighborhood Watch captain, chatting in a hallway after the meeting at Sanford City Hall. “But we need to move past that, move forward. George Zimmerman doesn’t define Neighborhood Watch.”

Were this any other city in America, a meeting between residents and police to discuss a parochial crime-busting initiative would pass as unremarkable. “But we’ve been in the spotlight for such a long time because of this case, that it seems like someone only has to trip over a curb and bump their head in this city and it’s back on us all over again,” laments Smith, speaking prior to the meeting.

On this initiative, the spotlight has shone all the brighter because of Smith’s decision to confront one of the most volatile issues inherent in the Trayvon Martin tragedy: the right to bear arms.

Whereas Zimmerman carried a pistol, from which he fired a bullet through Martin’s heart during a fight that began after he wrongly deemed the black teen to be “up to no good” and followed him, Smith’s Neighborhood Watch volunteers will be encouraged to leave their firearms at home.

The chief has backed off a plan to issue an outright ban on volunteers carrying guns, mindful of the potential legal backlash and that he would have been “essentially pissing people off.” His new instructions are carefully worded.

“It doesn’t say you can carry a firearm and it doesn’t say you can’t. We’re not banning firearms. We’re telling people that you should not—not ‘shall not’—be armed when you’re performing as a Neighborhood Watch block captain,” he explains. “Neighborhood Watch is built on the principal of ‘Observe, identify, and notify the police if you see something suspicious.’ You don’t chase someone down, you don’t confront. You call us and we’ll do that.”

Neighborhood Watch volunteers will be required to undergo criminal background checks and formal training, and indemnify Sanford PD against claims for injuries. Citizens on Patrol—a step up from Neighborhood Watch that utilizes civilian, uniformed volunteers to complement the city’s 120 paid police officers—will expressly ban gun owners from carrying weapons while on duty.

“I would prefer to do this without so much attention, but people are talking about the ‘need for protection’ and they’re not realizing that in actually having a conversation you can get just as much done as walking around with a gun on your hip,” said Smith.

For Charles Edwards, a licensed gun owner, the idea of leaving his weapon at home does not sit comfortably. His home was burglarized last year. He attended Tuesday night’s meeting to learn more, but is still undecided over whether to volunteer. “Quite honestly, if I go out in a protective capacity, I’m going to want to carry my gun. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to go out at night,” he admits.

He does not see racial divisions in Sanford as a problematic issue, so much as the political issue of “gun owners versus non-gun owners.”

“I’m not gun-happy—the last thing I’m going to do is shoot anyone. But after the Trayvon Martin case, there’s a lot of people now who think ‘Hey, if we’re being attacked, we’ve got a right to defend ourselves with lethal force’ regardless of who initiated the situation.’”

Florida Carry, a group that advocates for Second Amendment and self-defense rights, feels that even discouraging licensed gun owners from carrying while serving on Neighborhood Watch is “irresponsible.” Volunteers are more vulnerable to becoming targets of criminal aggression—and therefore more in need of armed protection, believes Sean Caranna, its executive director.

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