Shooting down civility

“Don’t take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns at home, Bill. Don’t take your guns to town.”

— Johnny Cash

I think one clear lesson to be drawn from recent shootings in Florida is that if one is visiting the Sunshine State this spring break, be prepared to duck.

Florida’s Trayvon Martin case is receding into memory, resurrected only occasionally by the antics of Trayvon’s acquitted killer, George Zimmerman. Two new cases, however, illustrate what happens when arguments occur in the vicinity of guns. In a Tampa movie theater, a retired police captain shot and killed a 43-year-old man after an argument over the younger man’s texting before the movie began. In Jacksonville, a white man has been convicted of firing 10 shots into an SUV after an argument over loud rap music. A 19-year-old black teen was killed.

In each of these cases, both parties felt justified to “stand their ground,” and both parties lacked civility, prudence and common sense.

Rudeness is not in short supply these days. I’ve been in theaters where patrons answered phones, texted and talked during movies. It is a kind of rude social obliviousness that turns a public place into one’s own living room, but not in a good way.

I’ve also heard loud music blaring from cars at a bone-jangling, nerve-rattling volume that I only aspired to as a kid driving his dad’s Dodge Dart. If I don’t complain about the volume now, it is because I’m sure the decibels will beat the occupants into unconsciousness.

But there is no denying that common rules of politeness and civility often are ignored. Too many of us view it as a God-given right to be obnoxious, and too many of us are quick to take offense. And we all have constant reminders that other folks don’t care much what we think.

If civility has taken a hit these days, prudence seems to be down for the count. Simply avoiding a confrontation — moving to different seats, finding another gas station — has taken a back seat to “standing one’s ground.” The name of a controversial Florida gun law, the concept sounds noble, even heroic, but it is just stupid. Trayvon Martin — from the telling of his defenders — stood his ground. The father who was texting stood his ground, throwing popcorn at the complainer. The teens in the SUV stood their ground as well. In each case, both parties felt oppressed and did not back down. But in each case one party had a gun.

Perhaps in an age in which everyone is standing up for his own rights, prudence smacks too much of turning the other cheek, but the decline in civility is becoming a two-way street: People who lack civility in their public behavior are sometimes bullies, but sometimes just clueless or self-absorbed. If we who are offended are clueless and self-absorbed as well, we just make a bad situation worse.

And when guns are available, the potential for tragedy grows exponentially. As the Johnny Cash song “Don’t take your guns to town” illustrates, this is nothing new. The lesson from a shootout in a saloon remains true for a movie theater and a gas station as well.

Which is where fear comes in: While civility may be the preferred glue to hold society together, perhaps — at least in Florida — fear will lead to prudence. I am not sure this is any sort of improvement for society, but perhaps if the rude and the hot-headed have to think about who may be packing and whether they want to die for a text message, a smidge of common sense will prevail.

As for me, I just hope that the FAA never allows cell phones to be used in flight. If it does, I have only one word of advice: duck.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.