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Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and the media's misleading rhetoric on guns

Democrats want to make gun control an issue in the upcoming November elections. With Obama telling gun control proponents last year to be patient, that he was pushing gun control “under the radar,” it was probably always destined to be an issue. But the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida has opened up an opportunity for Democrats to more openly embrace it.

When asked about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law on Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden warned: “as a consequence of the [gun control] laws, [people] unintendedly put themselves in harm's way.” Biden praised Florida's governor for setting up a commission to review the state's "Stand your ground" law and reminded everyone that Obama had already called for everything, including gun laws, to be re-examined.

There's no question that the media has pushed the Martin story. 

NBC News came under fire after Fox News and others discovered that the network had edited the audio tapes that they broadcast to make it look as if Zimmerman believed Martin’s race made him dangerous. NBC broadcast: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black." But, without any warning to listeners, they cut out three sentences in between the two they broadcast, including the dispatcher asking Zimmerman: “OK, and this guy--is he black, white or Hispanic?”

ABC News aired a surveillance video from the police station that made it appear as if they had proof that Martin couldn’t have attacked Zimmerman that evening. But the Daily Caller showed that when the picture is magnified one can see what clearly looks like a cut several inches long on the back of Zimmerman’s head.

In addition, the media has consistently described the laws incorrectly. The “Stand Your Ground” or “Castle Doctrine” laws replaced the original requirement to retreat with a “reasonable person” standard, that a reasonable person would believe that a criminal intends to inflict serious bodily harm or death. For example, you can’t shoot a fleeing criminal in the back. You can’t provoke the attacker into attacking. You can’t use unnecessary force to stop the attack. Anyone who thinks that the law lets them “shoot first, ask questions later” will end up jail.

The Washington Post’s description is almost laughable, claiming the law “immunizes an individual from criminal charges if he asserts he had a ‘reasonable’ fear of grave harm.” It isn’t that the individual firing the gun who gets to say that he had a “reasonable” fear. 

Ultimately, a judge or jurors get to decide if the fear was reasonable.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story implying that the increase in justifiable homicides from 176 in 2000 to 326 in 2010 arose from a 'shoot first' mentality. But the article fails to acknowledge that the laws increased the number simply by changing what is classified as self-defense. The important issue here is whether the law increased total murders. 

I have conducted the only published, refereed academic study on these laws, and I found that states adopting "Castle doctrine" laws reduced murder rates by 9 percent and overall violent crime by 8 percent.

In the push to undo these state laws, the media never mentions why the laws were adopted to begin with. 

Prior to the “Stand Your Ground” or “Castle Doctrine” laws, citizens who wanted to defend themselves from a criminal had to retreat as far as possible and then announce to the criminal that they were going to shoot. 

But forcing a victim to take time to retreat can put their life in jeopardy, and a prosecutor might draw the line differently in whether a victim had retreated sufficiently. There have been many cases where victims have been chased and knocked down a couple of times before firing in self-defense, but prosecutors thought that the victim still could have done more to retreat before firing their gun.

The debate was over victim’s safety, and it was a bipartisan concern that crossed all racial lines. Florida’s Senate passed the “Stand Your Ground” law by a 39 to 0 vote. The Florida House voted 92 to 20.

As for the Martin case, the national media initially ignored information that appeared to back up Zimmerman’s account of events. For weeks the news covered the case without references to either the police report or interviews that local media had already done with eyewitnesses.

For instance, FOX 35 in Orlando spoke to one eye witness the day after the shooting. "The guy on the bottom who had a red sweater on was yelling to me: 'help, help…and I told him to stop and I was calling 911," the witness identified as "John" said. The witness further indicated that it was the guy on top who was doing the hitting and that the shot occurred while that attack was taking place.

The man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, was the man in the red jacket. The police report corroborates the witness' account: "While I was in such close contact with Zimmerman, I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of his head." As Zimmerman told police: "I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me."

A lot of people (both conservatives and liberals) are going to end up being embarrassed by their instant, snap judgments about this case. 

The focus on a single case to evaluate laws that have been in effect for years in over 40 states is troubling enough. But right now it looks as if the rush to reform is based on nothing more than bad reporting.

John Lott is a FoxNews.com contributor and the author of the third edition of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010). He is also co-author of the just released “Debacle: Obama's War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future” (John Wiley & Sons, March 2012).

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for FoxNews.com. He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench" Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.