Books

America's Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense

An interest in gun rights has spread to African American, Jewish, LGBTQ, and other minority communities, but there's a deeper legislative and cultural issue to address.

Photo Credit: Lukas Maverick Greyson / Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense by Caroline E. Light (Beacon Press, 2017).

When Good Citizenship Is Armed Citizenship

"There is a word for the unfounded, pre-emptive, due-process-free (but tacitly sanctioned) form of killing perpetrated against black people in this country in an effort to safeguard white property: lynching." —Sabrina Strings, 2014

"The logic [of stand-your-ground laws] incentivizes an armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead." —Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2012

Standing one’s ground against a perceived threat has long been a white, masculine prerogative in the United States. When European settlers arrived on American soil, they justified violence as necessary to their basic survival, seizing land that was already inhabited while imprisoning or exterminating its occupants. Settler colonialism and, later, the idea of Manifest Destiny—spreading civilized Christianity across the continent—together demanded the subjugation of nonwhites. And the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship were inaccessible to all but white, property-owning men. The legacies of this under-recognized history of repression and exclusion in the name of national survival still haunt us today.

Our textbooks and memorials celebrate armed defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, of resisting the urge to flee in the face of fear. From the American Revolution to the Alamo to Iwo Jima, our nation’s favorite stories of the past venerate militaristic heroism and bold defiance over appeasement and retreat. Recently, however, roughly coincident with the turn of the millennium, our admiration for defensive militarism has transformed into a pressing call for individual, do-it-yourself (DIY)-security citizenship. The defensively armed citizen has become, in some quarters, the paragon of patriotism.

Today, a compulsion to seek individual solutions to urgent home, and homeland, security anxieties permeates our culture. A Wyoming bumper sticker welcomes visitors while warning potential criminals to “consider everyone armed.” Thirty-three states have adopted laws allowing for lethal self-defense outside of one’s home, and approximately 13 million civilians are licensed to carry concealed firearms. Colorado’s self-defense law is named after Clint Eastwood’s much-quoted provocation, “Make my day,” and homeowners across the nation post “We Don’t Call 911” signs in their yards, warning would-be burglars that a home intrusion will be met with immediate lethal violence. Celebratory depictions of armed citizens populate our news media and entertainment, where fantasies of righteous vengeance and DIY security frame familiar redemption stories. Popular television shows and movies depict ordinary citizens fending off criminal strangers—often depicted as zombies, extraterrestrial “aliens,” or other fictional threats to humanity—when the apparatus of the state has failed to protect them. Ordinary citizens-turned-defensive-warriors are today’s ultimate action heroes.

Our popular narratives of heroism disparage the state’s incapacity to protect citizens from a growing list of urgent threats. Foremost among them is terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which shook the nation’s collective sense of security. Stephen Kinzer argues that insecurity about terrorism has fed the growth of an aggressively militaristic “United States of Fear and Panic,” in which anxiety about terrorism far exceeds the actual threat. In The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi explores the nation’s centuries-long obsession with home(land) security, in which women kept the proverbial home fires burning while white men fought off wild animals, Native Americans, and foreign threats to the young nation. A longing for these comforting gender ideals in the service of safety and self-sufficiency reawakened with a vengeance in response to 9/11 under the new rubric, homeland security. Since then, self-defense has been invoked as a civic obligation as much as a right.

Even as we channel tax dollars into national security, fighting terrorism abroad, reinforcing our borders at home, and furnishing some local police forces with military grade equipment, we seek out the latest technologies of home security and armed self-defense. A growing throng of what sociologist Jennifer Carlson calls “citizen protectors” claims to fill in where the government is perceived to be inept or inadequate. In 2004 Dave Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a former West Point instructor, coauthored an article called “On Sheep, Sheepdogs, and Wolves,” which became a manifesto for DIY-security citizens in the new millennium. According to Grossman, the only thing protecting unarmed, peace-loving “sheep” from criminal “wolves” are the heroic “sheepdogs” who selflessly stand at the ready to defend themselves and others. In Grossman’s narrative, there is a tidy delineation between good and bad—each transparently recognizable to the other—and “heroes” resort to deadly violence only to defend themselves and the weak. His message is an empowering one, promising that those who take their safety into their own hands will triumph in the end.

Answering widespread insecurity and fear with individualized might, the DIY-security message resonates with those distrustful of the American government and suspicious of the nation’s first Black president. Journalist Lindsay Cook traces the record growth in gun sales following Hillary Clinton’s concession speech in July 2008 to what some are calling the Obama effect. Just after President Obama’s election, gun sales saw a 60 percent spike over average sale volumes. Advocates of armed citizenship argue that a liberal federal government intrudes into citizens’ private affairs, infringing on personal gun rights, while failing to protect people from a litany of encroaching threats. Although these fears are not supported by facts, conservative news media and gun rights activists insist that progressive government constitutes a direct threat to private citizens’ right to own and bear arms.

These suspicions have at least as much to do with the president’s race as they do with his liberal governance. The Colombian economist and sociologist Emilio Depetris-Chauvin collected and compared regional data on the number of background checks made in the course of gun purchases during the election years 2000, 2004, and 2008, and revealed a radical spike in gun sales in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. If these changes reflected ideology alone, we would expect to see a spike in gun sales whenever liberals were elected. Indeed, fears of the president’s Black “rage” and rumors of his covert Muslim identity populate conservative media, fanning the flames of white reactionary security panic. Given widespread “fear of a Black president,” the need to take up arms in self-defense intensified into a national imperative.

But the turn to DIY security is not limited to self-identified “conservatives,” or to those who perceive liberal governance as a threat to their personal liberty. Today the spread of perceived insecurity, as well as a lack of faith in the protective powers of the government and local police, transcends ideological boundaries, with members of targeted minority groups also arming themselves against criminal threats. A recent example is the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA), established in 2015 to “expose, educate, and motivate as many African American men and women to go out and purchase a Firearm for Self-Defense and to take training on proper gun use.” Described on the website as a “civil rights organization,” the NAAGA emphasizes the need for Black self-protection in a nation that—in spite of popular appeals to color blindness—disproportionately subjects people of color to sustained violence and exclusion. The organization sees itself as part of a long legacy of Black armed self-defense whose antecedents include the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Deacons of Defense, and the Black Panther Party (BPP). Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO) similarly appeals to historic discrimination and violence in its effort to expose the “racist roots of ‘gun control,’ ” which the JPFO characterizes as “victim-disarmament.” The JPFO website features a “genocide chart,” which contains statistics on all “victims of disarmament,” from the Armenian genocide and Nazi Holocaust to the mass murder of Tutsi in Rwanda in the 1990s. For the JPFO and NAAGA, historic racism and antisemitism—which have featured government and police complicity—justify the present accumulation of firearms for minority communities.

The voices promoting self-defense as an urgent individual need grow louder with each mass shooting, characterized as an episode of gun violence in which four or more people are killed. After a young, white gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, gun sales spiked. Public figures, including Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, lamented that, had the classrooms and teachers been outfitted with firearms, the tragedy would never have happened. Shortly thereafter, the National Rifle Association sponsored a report, National School Shield, calling for armed guards in all American schools.

Although they make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s total gun-related deaths, mass shootings grab media attention and generate panic. In 2015 alone, the U.S. experienced 372 mass shootings that killed 475—out of a total 12,942 gun-related deaths that year—and wounded 1,870. After a white gunman killed nine worshippers at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, renewed cries for commonsense restrictions on civilian gun ownership were accompanied by another increase in gun sales. Philip Smith, founder of NAAGA, opined, “I generally like to say no to guns in church, but I can’t help but think that if someone had a gun, they might have had a chance to defend themselves; just maybe a chance to survive or kill the shooter.”

On June 12, 2016, a U.S.-born Muslim man in possession of a legally purchased semiautomatic handgun and a military-grade assault rifle opened fire on the patrons at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. As the nation mourned the tragic death of 49 mostly young, mostly Latino/a and African American, LGBT-identified people, many across the political spectrum held up this event and others as evidence of a pressing need for expanded civilian access to firearms. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump asserted his support for a widely armed citizenry, insisting, “If you had some guns in that club ... you wouldn’t have had the tragedy that you had.” Nicki Stallard, spokeswoman for the Pink Pistols gun club, echoed this sentiment, urging LGBT-identified people to arm themselves against transphobic and homophobic violence. Citing the inadequacy of law enforcement, she warned, “If you don’t defend yourself, no one else will.” The Pink Pistols were founded in 2000 in response to police and civilian violence against gay, lesbian, and gender nonconforming individuals to empower members to channel their “ammosexuality” by learning how to defend themselves with lethal weapons. Like NAAGA and JPFO, the group’s mission is preventative as well as reactive. According to founding member Gwendolyn S. Patton, “We teach queers to shoot, then teach the world that we have done it.”

Our nation’s growing sense of vulnerability in the wake of mass shootings and the threat of terrorism has shaped a new set of rights and responsibilities, where citizens must be prepared to stand up to danger instead of relying for protection on local police and the government. Perception is everything: if we live in a world full of terrorists, violent criminals, and “illegal” immigrants, with a government unwilling or unable to protect us, we law-abiding citizens must take matters into our own hands. More and more we look to the heroic armed citizen who refuses to depend on others for protection as the ethical core of this powerful, ostensibly democratic and democratizing impulse. DIY-security citizenship holds each of us responsible for our own self-defense and celebrates self-reliance and independence in the face of danger. In the oft-repeated words of the NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Increasingly many of us are taking this message to heart, and more people than ever seek to carry their firearms beyond the confines of their homes. Since 1990, the number of people with concealed-carry permits has risen from 1 million to approximately 13 million; as of 2014, every state has provisions allowing qualified civilians to apply for concealed-carry licenses. The rapid normalization of gun-carrying DIY-security citizenship owes much to the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which affirmed an individual’s “right to keep and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia interpreted the Second Amendment as “surely elevat[ing] above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”

The Heller decision rested on Justice Scalia’s “originalist” interpretation of the Second Amendment, in which he considered its intended meaning at the time of its adoption in 1791. At that time, a “law-abiding citizen” openly carrying a firearm was perceived as earnestly invested in an effort to protect himself, his wife and children, and his property. Open carry in the 18th and 19th centuries was based on the logic that a visibly displayed weapon would discourage confrontations, while concealed weapons were primarily carried by criminals and people who were otherwise up to no good. The Heller decision conveniently ignored the race and gender exclusions of the amendment’s original historical moment, where a “law-abiding citizen” was a white, property-owning man, who openly carried a rifle not only to defend his “hearth and home,” but also to assert his dominance over enslaved labor and his access to land seized from Native Americans. Thus this 2008 Supreme Court decision divested the early emblem of “law-abiding citizenship” of its historic exclusionary connotations and reconstructed it to support our contemporary investment in DIY-security citizenship.

Yet our nation’s past exclusions—ones that ensured that white, propertied men held a monopoly on lethal violence—continue to haunt the way we distribute the rights of self-defense in the present. We might observe the lopsided distribution of DIY security in the rapid spread of stand-your-ground (SYG) laws. First passed in Florida in 2005, SYG laws allow civilians who perceive themselves to be in imminent danger to use lethal force without first trying to escape to safety. The laws grant special immunities to those who claim self-defense after killing someone, as long as “the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.” They are designed to help all would-be “sheepdogs” defend themselves, their families, and their property from encroaching “wolves.”

On their surface, SYG laws provide legal justification and criminal immunity to any person who uses deadly force in self-defense. There is significant variation among state SYG laws, but all of them emphasize the right to use lethal force when one experiences what a “reasonable person” would consider a threat, even if the person could safely retreat from the perceived danger. Another key characteristic common to SYG laws is their emphasis on each person’s right to defend one’s self and property from criminal violation. Proponents of the laws aim to absolve law-abiding citizens of all criminal responsibility when they respond lethally to a perceived threat.

However, as we’ve seen with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old gunned down by an armed citizen in a Florida suburb in 2012, perceptions of threat are in the eye of the beholder. Defensive lethal violence by armed citizens shares a historical genealogy with contemporary police violence, in that the usual targets are most commonly people of color. In 2014, police officers gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, and 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, because they perceived them—in the moment—as imminent threats. Neither possessed weapons, but police justified their force as necessary in the name of self-defense and the protection of the community. In these cases, as in many others, police violence against people of color takes root in the implicit biases of the larger culture. If Black men are widely perceived as intrinsically dangerous, they do not need to be armed to be seen as a threat to public safety.

But what happens when people of color, in response to the pressures of these social biases and being subject to their repeating violence, emulate the ideals of DIY security by arming themselves and standing their ground? White suspicions of Black criminality on one hand and urgent lethal self-defense on the other allow little space for people of color to serve in the growing army of DIY-security citizens. In July 2016, within a day of each other, two Black men in two different cities were killed by police. Both men were armed—following the mantra of today’s armed citizen—but neither resisted arrest or made a move to use his weapon. In fact, 32-year-old Philando Castile of Minnesota explained to the police who pulled him over for a broken taillight that he was carrying a concealed firearm for which he had a permit. As he tried to extract his license from his pocket, the police opened fire through his car window, killing him in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old child. In this case, it did not matter that Castile was a law-abiding citizen following the principles of armed citizenship, or that he was complying peaceably with police orders; in the eyes of the police who killed him, his blackness excluded him from the category of “law-abiding citizenship.” This is not the first time this has happened, and it likely will not be the last.

While our contemporary turn to DIY security appears universal, endowing each of us with a right and an obligation to defend ourselves against criminal dangers, in fact it is based on a set of exclusions whereby enhanced security for the few depends upon vulnerability for the many. In spite of the race- and gender-neutral terms of our contemporary self-defense paradigm, the perception of threat on which it is based is rooted in ideological blind spots that have haunted this nation for centuries, particularly our historical suspicion of nonwhite strangers. According to historian Robin D. G. Kelley, from our nation’s very founding, “predators and threats to [white] privileges were almost always black, brown, and red.” A selective right to lethal self-defense—one that privileged white (hetero-)masculine access to power and property—accompanied this nation’s founding in white European settler colonialism and slavery. The exclusion of nonwhites and women from the promises of democracy shapes our seemingly egalitarian ideals of DIY-security citizenship today.

Our contemporary understandings of law-abiding citizenship and criminality are neither gender neutral nor color-blind, and self-defense is not a de facto universal right. In spite of gun advocates’ claims that an armed citizenry and robust self-defense laws deter crime, states with SYG laws have seen a significant increase in homicides. Further, the language of these laws promises self-defense rights to everyone, but SYG laws are adjudicated through the lens of our society’s implicit racial and gender biases. The deck is disproportionately stacked against nonwhite men, who are more likely to be perceived as “reasonable threats,” even when they are unarmed. Crime statistics from the past decade reveal that SYG laws have exacerbated racial discrepancies in the adjudication of self-defense: whites who kill Blacks in states with SYG laws are more than eleven times more likely to escape conviction than Blacks who kill whites.

The disproportionate number of Black people killed and white people exonerated implicates our legal terrain’s complicity in promoting a “reasonable” suspicion of nonwhite strangers who venture into predominantly white space. According to the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The logic [of SYG laws] incentivizes an armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead.” Trayvon Martin was never able to tell his side of the story, and his shooter was exonerated based on widespread perceptions—and the presumed “reasonableness” of those perceptions—that Black men and boys are dangerous. Only for certain citizens are the terms of “reasonable” threat sufficiently urgent.

Likewise, female victims of heterosexual domestic violence and gender-nonconforming individuals subject to homophobic and transphobic attacks not only find themselves disproportionately vulnerable to violence but also find the legal protections of enhanced self-defense laws stubbornly elusive. In spite of widespread claims to gender equality, the “reality” of gender—the power of entrenched assumptions about femininity and masculinity as natural categories of human experience—continues to influence contemporary perceptions of threat and claims to self-defense. As witnessed in cases of women using violence to fend off attacks from intimate male partners and gender-nonconforming individuals fighting back against attackers, standing your ground remains a masculine, cisgender act. Women and gender-nonconforming people who invoke SYG laws to fend off violence face an uphill battle in court. In the words of legal scholar Mary Ann Franks, SYG laws ensure that “real men advance [while] real women retreat.” Especially when they are people of color, women and gender-nonconforming individuals who are subject to violence are often characterized as “unreasonable” in their perception of danger; their impulse to defend themselves dismissed as unnecessary or excessive.

At the heart of these often unspoken and unwritten exclusions rest age-old legal traditions that continue to shape our contemporary ideals of belonging and exclusion in sometimes unexpected ways. Indeed, the original doctrines of U.S. citizenship are based on understandings of national belonging as white, heterosexual, male, and propertied. Our founding legal document, the Constitution, originally granted the rights of citizenship to white, propertied men, and the first immigration and naturalization law similarly allowed naturalization to “any Alien being a free white person.” As the historian Robin D. G. Kelley explains, the nation’s “entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism—an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct.” The legal scholar Cheryl Harris illustrates how whiteness itself has functioned as an especially valuable and unstated form of property in United States law. Since the nation’s origins in European colonization of the Americas, argues Harris, “white identity conferred tangible and economically valuable benefits, and it was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard of proof.” Slavery and settler colonialism, each critical to the fortification of white masculine power and property, could succeed only with the violent repression of African-descended and Native people, and the political and legal subordination of women. But even as the legal imperatives governing citizenship were gradually amended to provide political and civil rights to nonwhites and women, the enduring exclusions persist. We bear witness today as our self-defense laws, despite their apparent race and gender neutrality, continue to protect the safety of the powerful few at the expense of the vulnerable many.

Given our present association of DIY security with good citizenship, one might suppose that the United States has always been a “shoot first, ask questions later” nation. In fact, the original English common law heritage on which our legal structure is based reserved lethal punishment exclusively for the Crown. Valuing human life above property, English common law imposed a robust duty to retreat, which commanded that one “retreat to the wall behind one’s back” before meeting force with force. But this duty to retreat eroded quickly in the United States.

Excerpted from Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, by Caroline E. Light (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Caroline Light is director of undergraduate studies in the Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South. Her most recent book is Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.

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