By Jeff Brumley
The state legislator and Southern Baptist layman who championed the Stand Your Ground law made infamous in the Trayvon Martin case was relieved when the killer was charged with second-degree murder.
“I was redeemed by it because everybody was saying it was the statute’s fault that he couldn’t be charged,” Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) said of George Zimmerman, the man accused of fatally shooting the teen in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26.
Zimmerman wasn’t arrested or charged for weeks after the killing, initially because he claimed self-defense in shooting Martin in the gated community where the boy was staying. Protests erupted over that fact and some of the attention went to the NRA-supported legislation Baxley helped pass in 2005.
“But this doesn’t apply to him because he wasn’t in a defensive posture,” Baxley said. “I felt vindicated by the fact he was charged.”
Baxley, an elder at The Vine Community Church, a new church plant in south Ocala and former 35-year member of First Baptist Church in Belleview, Fla., said one thing that needs no vindication is how and why a Christian can so actively promote a law like Stand Your Ground.
Supporting gun rights and the legal use of deadly force, he said, is in keeping with a Christian’s duty to be the light of the world. He is not swayed by those who argue a Christian’s obligation is to always turn the other cheek.
“There’s also much (in the Bible) about protecting the innocent, and protecting life and respecting life,” Baxley said. “There’s much to carry out in the gospel in that regard.”
Theologian: Martyrs ‘would be baffled’
But there are many Christian voices who disagree with Baxley’s view, said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
One of them is Claire McKeever-Burgett, a pastor at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. She is the co-author of a statement adopted by the Alliance of Baptists supporting the Trayvon Martin family.
Gun rights laws encourage the ownership and use of firearms, which runs counter to Christ’s call for his followers to be peacemakers, McKeever-Burgett said. “I have a hard time understanding how having weapons of any kind can bring peace.”
Gushee said mixing Christianity with legally protected violence is a concept the ancients would not have understood.
The early Christians saw pacifism a requirement of discipleship, Gushee said. Gospel teachings about going the second mile, turning the other cheek and showing love for enemies inspired the martyrs of the early church.
“They would be baffled by Christians holstered up and ready to kill.”
Gushee said Christians need to ask themselves if NRA-backed legislation is the best way to promote a peaceful society. Even gun laws meant to reduce violence, he said, could have the opposite effect.
“Stand Your Ground may tip the balance too far in favor of hair-trigger responses to perceived threats,” Gushee said. “It’s a recipe for violence, especially against marginalized populations.”
Firearms ‘equalize the situation’
Baxley sees it the other way around. It was actually Travyon who could have rightfully invoked Stand Your Ground after being pursued by Zimmerman, Baxley said.
He said he in fact had the weaker members of society in mind in supporting Stand Your Ground and bills allowing firearms in state and national parks and in workers’ cars parked in company parking lots.
“When I think about these bills I think about cases of women,” he said. “Like the 150-pound girlfriend whose 250-pound ex-boyfriend has sworn to kill her – how are we going to equalize the situation?”
But he also admits gun rights alone can do only so much. The legislature must do more to prevent crime systemically, and that means increasing programs to help at-risk youth and ex-offenders.
It’s why Baxley said he supports the “smart justice” movement that favors social service programs run by churches and grass-roots non-profits over building more prisons.
‘Robbing your house, raping your wife’
Baxley tours the state visiting such organizations. On April 19 he toured Jacksonville Youth Works, a non-profit that provides counseling, mentoring and job training for convicted felons from the city’s most dangerous and poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
“I have one question for you,” he told the group’s CEO, Albert Shaw. “What’s the one thing I can do to help you?”
After discussing funding, their conversation became more philosophical, with Shaw and Baxley agreeing on the need to prevent crime by addressing the poverty and other social ills that spawn in it.
“You have to be involved with these children or you will see them anyway,” Baxley said. Otherwise “they’ll be robbing your house, raping your wife and stealing your property.”
‘Concerned about human rights’
The group’s founder said he knows all about Stand Your Ground, but says Baxley is also concerned about the disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates of black men. He’s also impressed that Baxley is a member of the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.
“He has a great concern about human rights,” said the founder simply named Ysryl.
Baxley said he sees no contradictions between those efforts and his gun rights legislation. Both are informed by the same faith that’s led him to his service as a deacon and elder, to participate in four church plants and to go on mission trips to Cuba and Haiti, he said.
“Everything I do ties back to that.”