COLUMN-America's Wild West gun laws:Bernd Debusmann

Fri Mar 23, 2012 10:45am EDT

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By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON, March 23 (Reuters) - The killing of a black teenager by a self-appointed vigilante in Florida has trained a spotlight on gun laws reminiscent of the Wild West in 24 U.S. states. Despite widespread outrage over the Florida case, gun-friendly senators in Washington want to make it easier to extend those laws to most of the country.

That would set the United States, where there are more firearms in private hands than in any other country, even farther apart from the rest of the industrialized world as far as guns are concerned. And it would mark yet another success for the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its long campaign against gun controls.

Before getting into the details of the planned legislation, a brief recapitulation of what happened in the Orlando suburb of Sanford on February 26: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student, walked to a family member's home at night when George Zimmerman, a self-appointed "neighborhood watch captain" spotted him, deemed the teenager suspicious, pursued him and shot him dead with a 9 mm pistol after what he told police was an altercation that made him fear for his life.

Police questioned Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, accepted his account of the incident, and let him go, following the letter or a 2005 Florida state law that allows citizens to use deadly force if they "reasonably believe" they face harm. Unlike previous such cases, the teenager's killing caught national attention, largely because social media served as a vehicle to carry charges of racism and unequal justice to a huge audience.

On March 8, Martin's parents posted a "petition to prosecute the killer of our son" on the website change.org.

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By March 23, after thousands of demonstrators in New York, Miami and Sanford demanded Zimmerman's arrest, the parents' petition had gathered close to 1.5 million signatures. Sanford's police chief, Bill Lee, stepped down "temporarily" to let tempers cool, as he put it. In Washington, the Congressional Black Caucus, an informal group of African-American legislators, termed the teenager's death a "hate crime."

One might be tempted to think that the wave of indignation, steadily gathering momentum since February 26, might have tempered the enthusiasm of gun-loving Washington legislators for expanding controversial laws. But one would be wrong. And one would underestimate the clout of the NRA, considered one of the three most influential lobbies in the United States.

On March 13, less than two weeks after Trayvon Martin's death, a Democratic senator from gun-friendly Alaska, Mark Begich, introduced the "National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2012." Just another week later, Senator John Thune from South Dakota introduced a bill "to allow reciprocity for the carrying of certain concealed firearms." The differences between the two are minor and due to an arcane dispute between the NRA and the smaller and more radical Gun Owners of America. The NRA has asked its members to contact their senators and ask them to co-sponsor the Begich bill.

HAVE GUN, CAN TRAVEL

Both bills would force all states that issue permits to carry concealed weapons to recognize permits obtained elsewhere. States such as California and New York that have stringent regulations on who can carry a gun would be obliged to allow people with permits obtained from states with lax gun laws, such as Florida. Gun control advocates say that it is laws allowing citizens to carry loaded handguns in public that form the basis of additional legislation, Such as the Florida Stand Your Ground law that barred police from arresting Zimmerman.

As Alcee Hastings, a Democratic congressman from Florida put it: "This misguided law does not make our streets safer, rather it turns our streets into a showdown at the OK Corral. But this is not the Wild West. We are supposed to be a civilized society. Let Trayvon's death not be for naught. Let us honor his life by righting this wrong." Hastings, who is African American, called for a repeal of the law.

That is not likely to happen, and less so in an election year. President Barack Obama has stayed out of the debate on gun laws, which flares every time there is a headline-making shooting, and with few exceptions, lawmakers seek the gun lobby's favor and the resulting votes. This is the chief reason why advocates of tighter gun regulations have had little success over the past two decades.

Another reason, according to Kristen Rand of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, is that most Americans are unaware of the number of people killed in incidents similar to the shooting of Trayvor Martin. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) does not compile statistics on such cases and most of them are never known outside the place where they happened.

"The average person has no idea of the scale of the problem," said Rand. "If they had, things might be different."

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