President Obama is milking Trayvon Martin’s death for all he can — first to stir up racial division and now to get more gun-control laws. After the Florida jury rightly decided that George Zimmerman was not guilty of murder when defending himself against the teenager’s physical assault, Mr. Obama called for overturning “stand your ground” laws in the states.
“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?” Mr. Obama asked rhetorically in an unscheduled appearance in the White House Briefing Room on July 19. “And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
The president also questioned whether these state laws “are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations, if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation.”
Of course, Mr. Obama was using a hypothetical instead of the known facts of the case, an irresponsible thing for a president to do. Mr. Zimmerman was just following Mr. Martin down the street, which was not “threatening” in the legal sense.
There is no way that Mr. Zimmerman could have retreated because Mr. Martin was on top of him and beating him up on the ground. As the jury decided, Mr. Zimmerman was trapped and thought his life was in danger, so he was within his right to use lethal force to avoid being killed.
Mr. Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate, knows his theoretical case has no bearing on the justice system. He is pushing this narrative in order to prey on Americans’ lack of knowledge about the self-defense laws.
About 30 states have “stand your ground” laws on the books, but a Rasmussen poll released last week showed that half of Americans did not know whether their state was one of them. Twenty-one percent said their state did have the law, and 28 percent said it did not.
The federal courts and many state courts recognized the “stand your ground” principle for more than a century. It was based on common law, which allows someone to fight back with force when it is impossible to get away.
However, activist judges in some states created law through jury instructions that required victims to retreat instead of fighting off the criminals. This forces the innocent to make a split-second choice between running away in the hopes that the bad guy doesn’t catch up or fight back and face trial and possible prison time.
In recent years, many states that either used common law or had statutes that required retreat passed “stand your ground” ordinances modeled after a 2005 Florida act. The Sunshine State law, signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, was centered around the “castle doctrine,” a concept from English law that says that every man has the right to be as safe and protected in his home as a king would in his castle. Specifically, the Florida law said that you are allowed to use deadly force against an intruder in your home or vehicle when you fear great bodily harm or death.
The part of the law on which the anti-gun groups seized was the clarification that in public places, you do not have the duty to retreat. Instead, you may exercise your right to “stand your ground” when you reasonably think it is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or the commission of a forcible felony.
The Florida law spread across the country because people were shocked to realize that the courts might hold them responsible if they didn’t run away in the face of an attack. What seems like common sense — like not risking turning your back on an armed attacker in order to “retreat” — had to be codified.
Most people agree with these laws. Of the half of the country who knew about the “stand your ground” laws in their states, 74 percent supported the law and 16 percent opposed it in the Rasmussen poll.
Although Mr. Obama may view “stand your ground” laws as low-hanging fruit in his gun control bid, he is facing an uphill battle to persuade Americans that criminals should have more protection under the law than their victims. It is a human right to defend oneself, and “stand your ground” laws help ensure that right is upheld in America.
Emily Miller is senior editor of opinion for The Washington Times.