Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I met a neighbor in an apartment complex laundry room. He was an earnest, cheerful African-American man who struck up a conversation when he noticed I was carrying a Bible. While our church backgrounds were different, there was a good bit of common ground in our faith and views on life.
His experience, however, was very different from mine. While living in a fairly decent corner of Columbus (just outside the posh Upper Arlington neighborhood), he spent a great deal of his time working with inner-city youth in the tougher corners of Columbus. Kids he worked with knew violence - including gun violence - in a very intimate way. Nearly all knew somebody who had been shot; some had been either shooter or victim themselves; and most wanted to possess a gun, if they didn't already, for self-defense.
My neighbor's take on this set of problems had a remarkable practicality to it. His message to these kids was simple: you may think that every shooting has two different kinds of people - the shooter and the victim. But in reality, every shooting has two victims - the person being shot, and the person holding the gun. The phrase he used was direct: "For every one shot, two people go down".
By this he didn't mean that violence begets violence - although it does - and that if you shoot someone, sooner or later someone else will come and shoot you. He meant that, at the moment of the shooting, the lives of both people involved are ruined. He had known enough people who had done the shooting to understand that once you shoot someone, your life is forever changed, mostly for the worse. He had worked with kids and young men who had to live with that. They may not have the physical wounds, but they were wounded nonetheless - many scarred for life.
That phrase - "one shot, two go down" - has stuck with me for the last 20 years. Recently it's come to mind again as the Trayvon Martin shooting case continues to play out. Even before the latest revelations about George Zimmerman's current state, the logic was clear: Zimmerman's former life ended the night he shot Martin.
Whatever punishment the criminal justice system does or does not mete out to him, he will live under threat for the rest of his life from those who believe in eye-for-an-eye justice. And perhaps worse still, he will live with the knowledge of what he has done - that he shot and killed an unarmed kid. All the research on violence and war - which we would do well to read more often than we do - indicates that Zimmerman will likely be haunted by that night for the rest of his life.
Whether this is "enough" or "proper" punishment is a question for the justice system, and for public opinion. I'm sure there are some who will think that he will suffer too much, even if he escapes jail, and there are others who think that he should be made to suffer far more. But regardless of what prosecutors and lawyers and judges do, George Zimmerman is already being punished by the universe for his actions. And whether his official sentence ends up being 100 years or none, he will endure that punishment for the rest of his days.
Those quick to champion guns and lethal force as self-defense need to understand this: as my long-ago neighbor understood, like George Zimmerman those who seek to save their lives with a gun may lose them instead.