Zimmerman verdict: Jessie Ulibarri worries about Nerf guns and "living while brown"

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The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has sparked protests and prayer vigils and a seemingly endless discussion about race and guns, self-defense laws and justice in America. One of the oddest responses to cross our desk comes in the form of an e-mail blast from freshman state senator Jessie Ulibarri, who expresses concern for the safety of his "dark son" and says he mourns not only for Martin and his family but "for the loss of innocence and freedom every brown and black kid endures with this verdict."

Ulibarri, a Democrat from Commerce City, first made his comments over the weekend on Facebook. ProgressNow Colorado, which crusaded heavily on behalf of gun-control legislation this year, is now firing off his message to its e-mail list, inviting readers to "share their stories" about the issue by following a link to a survey that includes questions such as, "How did you talk to your children about Trayvon Martin?"

Here's what Ulibarri shared:

My heart and head ache this evening. Israel turned 15 last week and he's having a belated birthday party tonight. He asked me if he and his friends could go outside this evening and play "Cops and Robbers" with his Nerf guns.

My stomach lurched and cold fingers of fear grasped at my throat when I imagined my dark son, dressed in a sweatshirt, running through the streets of our neighborhood. With a dry mouth and wet eyes, I angrily told him that he could not go outside and play a simple childhood game.

I hope he knows that I am not angry with him, but I'm infuriated with the world we're raising him in. I'm angry at myself for limiting my son and denying him his youth because I'm petrified of what may happen to him for LWB (living while brown). I'm angry that black and brown boys are always seen as a threat, and never the joyful kids I know them to be.

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has caused so much pain for so many, and our family grieves tonight. We mourn not just Trayvon and his family, but for the loss of innocence and freedom every brown and black kid endures with this verdict.

No question that racial profiling is a legitimate concern in Colorado as much as Florida. Zimmerman certainly had more than a slight case of bias about suspicious "punks" in hoodies, but whether the suspect had to be African-American is less clear; an FBI investigation found little evidence of racism in Zimmerman's background. But the real puzzler in Ulibarri's meditation is the reference to Nerf guns.

Does the senator think there are trigger-happy neighborhood watch folks in his district, armed and ready to mistake a Nerf gun for a genuine gat? There are plenty of sleek, evil-looking and truly scary toy guns that can and have been mistaken for real guns, with tragic results. But your typical Nerf isn't one of them.

In fact, the greater threat -- if you believe the anti-gun guru, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- is real guns that look like toys. A few years ago Bloomberg was so exercised over garishly painted handguns that he declared them anathema in his fair city, prompting one of the manufacturers to unveil a special line of brightly-hued firearms known as the Bloomberg Collection.

It's difficult, in any case, to see how the Nerf gun plays out in any Martin-Zimmerman analogy. Martin didn't have a gun, fake or real. Zimmerman did, and whether that saved him from worse injury than he suffered, or escalated a skirmish into a deadly confrontation, is more at the heart of the debate. And how you come down on that question may have a lot to do with whether you feel less free or safe today than you did before you heard of either one of them. From Alan Prendergast's archives: "Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' vs. Colorado's Make My Day': a primer in self-defense."

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