Manipulating public opinion: The President’s misguided attacks on the natural right of self defense

by Mike Horning, PhD

Research has shown that Presidents often attempt to use the bully pulpit to sway public opinion, yet rarely succeed in doing so. Last Friday, President Obama tried such tactics when he used the Trayvon Martin verdict to question the value of Stand Your Ground laws. And in doing so, his only success might have been to provide more confusion about self-defense laws.

Obama said, "And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?"

It is a well known fact to anyone paying attention that Stand Your Ground was never used as a defense in the Trayvon Martin case. Instead, the verdict was decided in favor of Zimmerman simply on the grounds of basic self defense. The jurors, in other words, apparently believed both the forensic evidence provided and Zimmerman's account that Trayvon Martin initiated the physical confrontation and that Zimmerman used the force necessary to stop the assault.

Yet despite these facts, President Obama raises the question of whether Martin would have equal protection under the Stand Your Ground law to use deadly force. And the answer to that is of course, no.

Florida's stand your ground law simply says that a person "who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another."

In an op-ed piece, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Don Gaetz put the law in simpler terms, stating that Stand Your Ground "simply says if you have a right to be somewhere and if you're not breaking the law, you may defend yourself to prevent imminent death or bodily harm. You don't have an obligation to do so. You have the right."

Stand your ground legislation was drafted as the kind of common-sense legislation that President Obama claims he is so fond of promoting. In short, it protects victims of violence from the frivolous and sometimes life altering lawsuits that they can face simply because they exercised their natural right to self-defense. Without Stand Your Ground laws, senior citizens, who stop a criminal during a home invasion are more vulnerable. Without Stand Your Ground, a woman who uses deadly force against a would-be rapist is more likely to face prosecution for her actions. Stand Your Ground, in other words, protect all sorts of victims from being further victimized by unscrupulous lawyers simply because they did what was necessary to save their own life.

It is disappointing to a see that the media industry which has boosted its ratings and page views by scrutinizing every claim from pro gun advocates under the guise of keeping the public "better informed" has not been as zealous with the President's recent claims.

Some, like Adam Winkler in the New York Times, have suggested incorrectly that Stand Your Ground gives broad powers to citizens to kill at will. However, the Florida statute is clear. Those who use the law as a defense must convince a jury that deadly force was reasonable.

The president, and perhaps Winkler, think that Martin might have feared for his life and been reasonably justified in his attack on Zimmerman. Such a proposition is of course, absurd. In order to make such an argument, Martin's lawyers would have had to convince a jury that the hypothetical shooting of Zimmerman was justified simply because Zimmerman followed him.

Surveilling someone, though maybe creepy from the perspective of the person being surveilled, is hardly an iron clad defense for manslaughter. And such a situation would be a very different case from the facts at hand. Surely the President's legal training would allow him to understand this difference.

Equally troubling are the President's comments that seem to imply that exercising the right to practice self defense somehow fosters a whole new class of violence-prone citizens, as if any sensible person with or without a gun wouldn't avoid using it at all costs.

Obama said, "If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?"

As an Ohio concealed handgun license-holder holder who has had several hours of gun safety training as well as state, local and federal background checks, I find it unsettling that my President considers me a potential threat to societal peace and security, when in fact research suggests that increases in the number of CHL-holders have either diminished crime rates or at the least kept them steady. Yet despite these facts, such statements are also revealing of the kinds of irrational ideas that seem to haunt the minds of gun control advocates. Such thinking seems to conflate guns in the hands of private citizens with only doing violence rather than understanding it as protective and preventative mechanism that ensures the liberty and security of the individual. Thankfully, our Courts and our Constitution see things differently.

In the end, it may be that the Obama Administration uses this tragedy to launch round two of its anti-gun agenda, and the media may fail to correct him. The president may even succeed in confusing the general public to the point that the average citizen doesn't know the difference between a simple self defense case and a Stand Your Ground one. He may convince the general population that Stand Your Ground laws create violent citizens. And in doing so, he may be successful in making it more dangerous for moms, dads, seniors and other citizens who find themselves faced with the terrible choice to fight for their life or lose it. Yet even if the president is successful in clouding public opinion, one thing will still remain very clear, George Zimmerman isn't walking free today because of Stand Your Ground laws. A jury that deliberated over the case for several days seemed to understand this. It's only the president who seems to be confused.

Mike Horning is a professor of Journalism and Public Relations at Bowling Green State University who researches the impact of new media technologies on democratic engagement and public perception. He is also a member of the NRA and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance.

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