Auction bids soared into the millions of dollars Friday for the handgun that a Florida man used in 2012 to kill an unarmed teenager, resulting in one of the highest-profile U.S. criminal cases in years.
With listed bids above $65 million Friday, it was becoming increasingly uncertain whether any were from serious buyers. Reporters watching the bidding said the gun auction apparently was "hijacked by trolls and pranksters," who posted their supposed offers under obviously fictitious names.
George Zimmerman, a "neighborhood watch" volunteer who said he was acting in self-defense, killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin with the pistol four years ago. The controversial case had racial overtones, since Zimmerman is Hispanic and Martin was black, and it received wide attention in the U.S. and worldwide.
Zimmerman was arrested six weeks after the shooting, eventually brought to trial on a charge of second-degree murder and was found not guilty, based on his testimony that he feared for his life when he fired his gun during a struggle with the teenager. Federal officials considered bringing additional charges against him, but eventually decided that the evidence available did not meet the "high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution."
The 9-millimeter pistol, known as a Kel-Tec PF-9, was returned to Zimmerman recently. He said he decided to sell it to raise money for political causes he favors, including some that defend U.S. police against charges that they too often use violent tactics against members of other races.
Zimmerman said he wanted to fight back against the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular.
Martin's death inspired formation of the activist group known as Black Lives Matter, which has gained national attention by spotlighting a series of cases where African-Americans died at the hands of police. Many of the incidents — including a policeman's fatal shooting of a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 — involved white law-enforcement officers and black victims.
"I am honored and humbled to announce the sale of an American firearm icon," Zimmerman said as he announced his gun was up for auction.
The pistol is being auctioned by UnitedGunGroup.com, which has been swamped by web viewers and supposed bidders, including those who listed their names as "Racist McShootface," "Tamir Rice" (the name of a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, when they saw him carrying a toy gun), and "Donald Trump."
The $65 million bid was listed in the name of Craig Bryant, but no further details about the bidder have been disclosed.
The auction is to last for five days.
Zimmerman claimed that the museums of the government-backed Smithsonian Institution in Washington planned to purchase his gun, but that was quickly denied in a tweet from the Smithsonian:
We have never expressed interest in collecting George Zimmerman’s firearm, and have no plans to ever collect or display it in any museums— Smithsonian (@smithsonian) May 12, 2016
Clinton weighs in
In an exchange that illustrated the emotional nature of the complex U.S. debate over firearms, race-inspired violence and police tactics, Zimmerman said a portion of any money he receives for the gun would go "to stop anti-firearm rhetoric" by supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Zimmerman also said he would contribute to efforts to "end the career" of Angela Corey, leader of the team that prosecuted him for murder.
Clinton responded indirectly to Zimmerman's comments, in a tweet addressed to Trayvon Martin's mother:
Sybrina, you and all mothers of gun violence victims have taught us hate will never win. Thinking of you today. https://t.co/FnsaKtq1hd -H— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) May 12, 2016
Clinton enclosed a link to the Trayvon Martin Foundation, established by the shooting victim's family in an attempt to end "senseless gun violence."