I hadn’t paid much attention to the Trayvon Martin case until yesterday, but I can now understand why it is generating so much outrage. For all that it resembles a hundred old-school “police brutality” cases where a young black male met a bad end in a murky encounters with white men in authority, it’s actually something different: a lesson in what might happen when a society decides to deliberately supplement its police forces by heavily arming citizens and hoping they act responsibly.

Sometimes they don’t, and sometimes, moreover, if you pass laws designed to give people the benefit of doubt when they are defending themselves you can give vigilantes a license to hunt and kill. The more we learn about the Martin case, the more it looks like that is exactly what happened, with the injustice compounded by the tendency of the actual authorities in Florida to take the side of a gun-toting neighorhood ethnic cleanser with an attitude and an arrest record against un unarmed black teenager brandishing a bag of Skittles and just trying to get out of harm’s way.

It says a lot about the resonance of this case that a relatively conservative African-American writer like John McWhorter would say the following about the refusal (so far) of the authorities to do anything about the shooter, George Zimmerman:

Unless the public has been grievously misled about what happened to Trayvon Martin, it would be nothing less than sinful for Zimmerman to go unpunished. So much so that for the first time in my life, a part of me would almost understand those who might be moved to wreak civil unrest in response.

The subtext of McWhorter’s unease is that it’s hard enough for African-Americans to constantly monitor their every move in the presence of police officers who may or may not regard them as automatic suspects; it’s another thing altogether when anyone you encounter might be an armed vigilante who enjoys the presumption of innocence in lethal “misunderstandings.”

Federal and state authorities are now investigating the case and its handling by local police in Sanford, Florida. Ta-Nahisi Coates, who did a lot to draw attention to the case, is optimistic about the outcome now that it’s not all being swept into the files:

What now have is, hopefully, an end to Keystone justice and, at the very least, a statement that the authorities will regard the killing of a child with something more than the lax scrutiny generally reserved for a broken tail-light.

Even if justice is served in this particular case, however, it’s still time to examine the laws and the attitudes that made this tragedy much more likely: the national crusade to shift the responsibility of protecting Americans aginst violent from the police to citizens themselves via concealed-carry and right-of-self-defense laws that also happen to arm and protect people like Trayvon Martin’s killer.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.