If you're a procrastinator like me - which means compulsively clicking through social media - you would know that George Zimmerman recently announced he was auctioning off the gun he used to shoot Trayvon Martin. The price of that gun supposedly shot up to $65 million, pushed up by fake bidders with names like "Racist McShootFace."

And you'd know that there was so much blowback—tweets such as “George Zimmerman is selling the gun he shot Trayvon Martin with. WTF, that's like if Jeffrey Dahmer had sold his teeth.”—that the auction was called off.

Zimmerman was the off-duty Sanford, Florida neighborhood watchman who, on February 26, 2012, grabbed his phone, keys, and Kel-Tec semi-automatic handgun to drive to a suburban Target to pick up some dog food. On his way out of his gated community, George spotted someone wearing a hoodie. He called police to report “a guy [who] looks like he’s up to no good …. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about.”

The dispatcher told George a squad car was on its way. George waited, continuing to surveil the pedestrian. The pedestrian began running. George got out of his truck and chased him. The police operator told George, “We don’t need you to do that.”

Moments later George claimed that the pedestrian “jumped out of the bushes” and ambushed him, beating his head against the sidewalk. All anyone knows for sure is that George wound up fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black boy on his way from a 7/11 to his father’s condo, packing Skittles candies.

An undated personal photo of Trayvon Martin. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Like 22 other states, Florida has a Stand Your Ground law that makes it legal to kill someone you “reasonably believe” is going to harm you. So George was not initially arrested. Eventually, he was tried for the shooting, but he was acquitted of murder charges.

While it's almost always difficult for me to understand how someone comes to shoot someone else, this case really stumped me. Seriously, how could someone—apparently functional (Zimmerman held a job, was married, had friends, was a conscientious pet owner) possibly think it’s a good idea to take a semi-automatic weapon to a suburban Target to buy dog food. I mean, this is a shockingly violent country, but it’s still really safe to go to big box stores.

In an effort to figure that out, I took the class required to carry a gun in Florida, a class to learn “competency with a firearm,” at George’s favorite gun store—with George’s brother and mom.

Our instructor began the course by asking each of us students why we wanted a license to carry.

A woman said, “My husband gave me a gun for Christmas.” A man replied, “You have to take responsibility.”

George’s brother Robert said, “We’ve had issues.” Gladys nodded emphatically. I said, “I’m into cultural issues.”

The news wasn’t George had shot and killed a child (that happens 10 times a day in the U.S., literally). What sparked “Justice for Trayvon” and Million Hoodie rallies more than 100 American cities was the fact that he had blasted open the wounds of America’s original sins — race and violence.

After activists outed the connection, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's, Amazon, Walmart, Bank of America, and more than 100 other companies cut their ties to ALEC, the business/political juggernaut that had lobbied for Stand Your Ground laws.

President Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” In April 2012, a Florida special prosecutor announced that upon further consideration there was probable cause to arrest George for murder.

Not surprisingly, every media outlet in the U.S. wanted to interview George We journalists wanted him to explain. My strategy sucking up to his family. I handwrote them a letter on my best stationery, asking for an opportunity to “understand.”

George’s older brother Robert, who’d become the Zimmerman family spokesman, called me. In October 2012, he and I met at the Algonquin bar in midtown Manhattan, right after he taped “Geraldo Rivera.”

Robert ordered a double gin and soda and I asked after George.

“He’s in hiding,” Robert said. “The Black Panthers put a bounty on his head.”

“There are still Black Panthers?” I said.

“The New Black Panthers.”

Robert confided that he was traveling under an assumed name.


He pointed to himself. “Zimmerman.”

“Um, it’s not a particularly uncommon name in New York,” I said.

Robert took a long drink. “Who do I look like?” It felt like a trick question.

The right answer turned out to be his brother George, who tabloids were calling “The Most Hated Man in America.” It turned out the whole Zimmerman family felt super threatened—George, his wife, his parents, his brother, his sister, and his brother-in-law. In fact, since George had shot Trayvon, only George’s brother-in-law had felt safe enough to work.

George was hiding in a trailer on remote island, and the entire rest of the family was holed up together, pseudonymously, living on his father’s Army pension and his mother’s county clerk retirement. Even though they had more than ten guns among them, one of the first things the Zimmermans did after George shot and killed an unarmed teenager was get more.

Over the next several months, Robert and I and stayed in touch by text and phone.

“So growing up you must have been one of those weapons-loving Duck Dynasty type families?” I said.

“Oh no,” Robert said, “"If we ever touched or handled a gun, Dad was gonna beat the shit out of us. Period. He made it absolutely clear, like bare bottoms, you’re gonna get the shit beaten out of you. He was always saying, ’Guns will get you into more trouble than they will ever get you out of.”

But I’d read the e-book your dad wrote, I told Robert, Florida v. Zimmerman: Uncovering the Malicious Prosecution of My Son, George. He said George was totally justified and smart to have a gun.

“Right,” Robert said. Dad believes George had duty to defend himself.”

Somewhere between “shit beaten out of you” for touching a gun and “duty to defend himself” was such an important story. God, I wanted to know it.

Over the next several months, Robert and I stayed in touch by phone, text, and when he came to New York, in person. The rest of the family remained in hiding, but, as George’s trial approached, Robert, ventured out more and more often for media appearances. He was, of course, very worried about being followed, bugged, and/or kidnapped.

But Robert had a lot of strategies to escape any would be captors, liked a fortune cookie-fortune size piece of paper rolled up in a tiny hollow bob on his key chain. On the paper Robert had written, “Help! I’ve been kidnapped!” and his sister’s phone number. If he were abducted, he’d drop his keys. Crime scene investigators would discover the hollow bob. Robert also had also lots of ideas about how to “re-brand” George — a line of “Z” security products, a reality show called “What Would George Do?”

He started inviting me to accompany him to his New York TV interviews. Robert really had become a pro. He could pick a network’s car service out of a dozen black Escalades. He told makeup artists, “Light with the foundation. Spray if you have it.”

He was always cool in the hot seats. In July 2013, in another New York medieval-themed bar, Robert and I watched the verdict of brother’s trial for murder on my iPad. Robert sipped wine and live tweeted as George was acquitted.

An hour later, on live television, he told Piers that all of the Zimmermans had been confident of that outcome. They believe in American justice.

Once exonerated, George occasionally popped into public view—a kind of Where’s Waldo of American Justice. He allegedly saved a family from a burning vehicle. He took a tour of the Kel-Tec gun factory. His wife and then a girlfriend threw him out of their homes after he reportedly brandished weapons and threatened them (police were called in both cases, but no were charges filed). He got pulled over for speeding in Texas.

Alas, Robert said, George still wasn’t “doing media.”

Almost a year went by. I kept up with Robert. He was considering an offer to have George “box” a famous rapper. It would be staged. George would be taken out of the ring “bloody” on a stretcher. Robert wasn’t sure that fit the “Z” brand he was developing.

“Like George is supposed to be all about safety and security,” he said. “Right?” In the spring of 2014, I finally got an audience with the senior Zimmermans.

We met in an Orlando, Florida suburb, at a sleepy hotel restaurant with very high-back booths. They struck me as pretty paranoid, too — very into disguising themselves by changing their hair and glasses, using code names, and parking their car so it was hard to see their license plate. Maybe I didn’t know what it was like to be related to the person polls showed was, “The Most Hated Man in America.”

The couple said they had gotten death threats after Roseanne Barr tweeted their home address. They’d had to move to a secret location. They were suing the comedian. But drama drained out of them quickly, before we finished our salads. What they really were was bewildered. Until their younger son killed an unarmed teenager, they considered themselves an American dream story.

Both Robert, Senior and Gladys had overcome significant odds—he from a brutally abusive father, a teenage life in state custody for protection from him or for petty crime acting out against him. In his early 20s, Robert, Senior, joined the U.S. Army.

“I’d already been institutionalized one or another for a long time,” he says. “And the military is a lot like jail. “They feed you, house you, and tell you what to do.”

Gladys was more the type to glam up her past. She described herself as an international young adventuress. But the story that eked out was that she moved to the U.S. from her native Peru without speaking a word of English (which you just don’t do for the weather here), and married Robert, Sr., without really being able to communicate with him. But the union endured.

He served 21 years in the Army, including a lengthy stint working directly for former U.S. Secretary of State, General Colin Powell. After he retired from the military, Robert, Sr., had earned his college degree and became a judicial magistrate. Gladys learned English and had become a county clerk who officiated weddings. She was active in her church, volunteered with immigrant charities.

They had tried to puzzle out where things took the dark turn. When George graduated high school he wrote in his yearbook, “I am going to Florida to work with my godfather who just bought a $1-million business.”

That didn't work out. The insurance company he started failed. George wound up a lot of credit issues that made ineligible to work for police departments, which kept him from achieving his next career goal, law enforcement. But the Recession had been hard on a lot of Americans, and George had been holding a steady job, been married for five years, was going to community college…

The senior Zimmermans were both so palpably humiliated. But more than anything they were weary—deep in debt, it eked out, from supporting their adult children who were all still too afraid to work. Access to George was the power they had left. Luckily, they really wanted someone to understand.

Becoming licensed to carry a gun felt like a test of my commitment to the mission. So along with Robert and Gladys, I signed up for the three-hour, $55-class, passage of which met the state’s proof of competency requirement.

The Arms Room is the gun store where George did his one post-acquittal meet-and-greet—in a flack-jacket, in a backroom. It was 15 miles east of Orlando on a four-lane exurb artery dotted with gas plazas and dollar stores. It was in a low slung, white box of a building decorated outside only by the word GUNS.

Inside, the walls were lined with peg-board, like in a hardware store.

They were fronted by glass cases, like in a jewelry store. In the middle, there were clothing racks and display tables, like at a Gap. Guns — big, little, long, short, black, pink, sleek, pimped out — hung on the walls. Bullets were the primary occupants of the display cases, the different kinds arranged together, like military battalions or dancers at football halftime shows.

Arms Room clothes were all style-less — a lot camouflage and oversized t-shirts.

Above it all, on what in a fancier building would be the frieze, were different sized prints of what I recognized as a painting that, after his acquittal, George claimed to have sold on eBay on $100,000.99. When I asked if George really gotten that sum, Robert rolled his eyes. The prints started at $50. The painting was a blue-tone American flag in the the neo-pop-art style of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster.

When the Zimmermans and I had entered the gun store, two guys with “Duck Dynasty” bushy beards were pushing back racks to make room for folding tables and chairs. At them, we sat down with the four other students — two men and two women, all 40-ish and friendly. Robert and Gladys introduced themselves only by first names, their real ones. Hearing them, the bushy beard guys and a lean angular man came right over to shake their hands.

The lean guy turned out to be our instructor. After we students each said said why we wanted to have a license to carry, he told us about himself. He was probably trying to come off as a bad-ass military vet with extensive law-enforcement cred, but what he seemed like to me was an aggrandizer who had a hard time holding a job. He was a reservist, but, when pressed, revealed he had served in places like Louisiana, not Afghanistan.

At age 45, he had worked for five different police departments. After the resume highlights, he shared a bit about his bout with Multiple Myeloma — not about chemo or the bone marrow transplant, but what a let-down his wife turned out to be. That led into a story about his divorce, which led into his views on American child-custody laws and how judges favour mothers, which led into a homily about women — basically, we can seem nice at first, but can also turn out to be real bitches.

Our instructor was a back-in-the-saddle guy, though. He had a new girlfriend, who he informed us is a flight attendant and has lots of gay colleagues. Lots. He lifted his arm, bent his wrist, swished his hips, and lisped, “So sweet” like he was doing an impersonation of the John Ritter character on the 70s sit-com “Three’s Company.”

It was really offensive. It was also really uncomfortable because Robert Zimmerman is gay, and his mother isn’t thrilled about it. Adding to my discomfort was the fact that we were 40 minutes through our three-hour class. There wasn’t much time to learn competency with a firearm.

But the instructor began speeding into a curriculum. His teaching method was Socratic.

“When is it legal to shoot someone?”

“If they try to hurt you or a loved one,” the man on the far left said.

“Right,” the instructor said. “So if I push you down, can you shoot me?”

“Yes,” we all ventured.

“Right. Because you were threatened with grave bodily harm. If I push down your friend, can you shoot me?”

“Yes.” We were louder, more sure of ourselves.

“Right. Because they are threatened with grave bodily harm.”

“If I say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ can you shoot me?”

It just felt like a trick question. No one answered.

The instructor nodded approval. “That’s right. Maybe, but maybe not. A judge would have to consider context — did you reasonably believe there was danger was standard in Florida pretty much everywhere else in America. Well, not New York and California. But they’re not really America,” our instructor ha-ha-ed, then quickly returned to seriousness. “When you shoot someone, you have to be careful.”

I was the only student taking notes.

Next topic—“What is the one reason to absolutely not get a gun?”

“If you don’t know how to use a gun?” I ventured.

“No,” the instructor said.


“The only reason not to get a gun, is if you are not prepared to use a gun.”

At least, the instructor was finally handing out guns — a Glock, a Ruger, a Smith & Wesson, a Kal Tec, a Taurus, another Glock. They were between Ipad and notebook computer weight. Cold and slick. At the feel of some, my classmates ooohed and ahhhed. They wrinkled their noses at others. I guessed that some of the models were fancy and expensive, and others were cheap, maybe knock-offs.

But I couldn’t tell how to assess the guns at all. Like sneakers, but worse. My classmates were asking questions about magazines and kickbacks, which in the world I inhabit are things you read and something you quietly give apartment building managers. Which I said.

“Where are you from?” the instructor asked.

“New York.”

“Welcome to Germany,” he said like the Nazi Captain Klinger in the 1960s “Hogan’s Heroes” TV series. “Everyone on the train!”

Robert bit his lip. He knew I was Jewish. But anti-Semitism was really the least of my concerns. The class was two-thirds over. I was feeling really stupid for assuming we’d spend most of it learning how to use a gun. Probably the instructor assumed we all already knew. Probably in red states it's a pretty safe assumption. Like how in some New York City zip codes virtually all kids know how to read before starting kindergarten.

“Okay, now to the most important thing,” our instructor said.

I figured we were on our way to the range, where I would quickly be outed as a no-nothing urbanite. But instead our instructor went “Three’s Company” John Ritter again — swishing and clapping, “Accessories!” They are the best way to get comfortable with your gun, he said. And being comfortable with your gun is the most important thing for being ready to use it!

The instructor stepped in front of his table to model his button-down shirt. Yes, it looked like something you could pick up at Macy’s but, voila, he pulled his sidearm — the seams were Velcro. After re-holstering his weapon, he showed us leather holsters, synthetic holsters, hip holsters, inside-waist-band holsters, ankle-holsters, shoulder holsters, and one that looked like cell-phone case. He brought out grips in a rainbow of colors. He showed us briefcases with secret gun compartments. Ditto handbags — Kelly-style to boho.

“Any questions?” the instructor asked. Fifteen minutes were left of our class.

“Aren’t you going to at least demonstrate how to shoot?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Then how am I supposed to become competent with a firearm?”

“Oh, you’ll never be competent,” he said.

Did that mean he was going to fail me? Did that mean I’d really spent nearly two years brainstorming ideas for a George Zimmerman reality show, and three hours listening to this asshole, and I still wouldn’t get to talk to George. I wouldn’t get to understand at all.

But then the instructor gave me a piece of advice and a piece of paper: “Get a .45. It’s a good beginner gun.”

I got my Concealed Weapons Permit. In 38 states, I can carry a concealed weapon most everywhere. In 27 states, I can carry my weapon in plain sight — Old West or Rambo-style, for instance. In eight states, if I go to a college, I can bring a gun to school.

George wasn’t impressed. Despite my permit and his family’s rave reviews about my commitment to trying to understand, George refused to meet me — unless I arranged to pay for him to stay in the concierge level of a hotel for a week. Which he must’ve known was a non-starter. He tried the same thing when Barbara Walters had found him, and she said, “Uh, no.”

Robert was bereft. He couldn’t rebrand George if George wouldn’t co-operate.

So I never got the story—what exactly happened between “shit beaten out of you” for touching a gun and “duty to defend himself.” After spending so much time around the Zimmermans I can guess that it was some toxic cocktail of the fear-mongering of the domestic far right, the genuine fear raised by foreign far right, materialism, the economic boom and the economic bust, credit that was too easy, debt that was too hard, an ego that was to big, a self-esteem that was too small, fear of darkness within and without us, and way too easy access to guns.

But, really, that’s all a guess.

I can tell you with reasonable certainty that George is not, as he wrote on the auction website, selling the gun to raise money to fight “BLM (Black Lives Matter) violence” and “Hillary Clinton’s anti-firearm rhetoric.”

If a year ago, he was so broke he was begging a week, he’s more broke now—and the klieg lights are fading so, probably, too, is his welcome on all of the supporters’ sofas he’s been surfing since.

I’m sure of his that the senior Zimmermans are humiliated, again. “I know it seems like George is greedy,” his father told me. “But, really, he’s just been through a lot.”

And what I absolutely know is that George still has many guns.

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