A new voice is about to be added to the debate about gun violence, and for those who take this debate seriously (because there are some debate participants who don’t) this is a voice with something important to say. I am referring to Caroline Light, who directs undergraduate studies of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard and is about to publish a book, Stand Your Ground, America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense.
Now you would think that a Harvard faculty member would, of course, be anti-gun. But Professor Light happens to be a Southern girl who, not surprisingly, grew up in a family where there were guns. And while she clearly understands that gun violence can’t be separated from the existence of guns, particularly so many guns, she’s not barking up the usual, gun-control tree. What she is after in her narrative, and certainly succeeds in this respect, is to explain how and why ‘stand your ground’ (SYG) laws have become so evident and pervasive throughout many parts of the United States. Because the point is that 33 states now have such laws. And most of these states also grant residents the unquestioned right to walk around with a gun. Put two and two together and what do you get? The legal sanctioning of gun violence, which is what the book Stand Your Ground is really all about.
Like most of our legal system, these laws came from the British common law tradition, which, on the one hand, recognized that a person had the right to protect himself from attacks except that the attack had to occur within the home; i.e., the ‘castle doctrine’ as it was known. British law did not sanction lethal self-defense outside of one’s domicile, in fact, it was presumed that in a civilized, ordered society, retreat in the face of possible injury was always preferred.
The sanctity of human life transcending the necessity to protect oneself from possible injury disappeared, however, in the evolution of American penal law. For that matter, the law’s recognition of armed self-protection in the case of home invasions (the ‘castle doctrine’) was extended to justify lethal self-defense in any location where the defender had the legal right to appear. Cases which upheld this kind of reasoning appeared as early as 1806 and became common in the decades following the Civil War, particularly in the South.
Here is where Professor Light’s narrative gets interesting. Because what she argues is that armed, self-defense, as codified in SYG laws coupled with concealed-carry laws (CCW) reflect a culture which celebrates the dominance of white men, particularly in the South, where ‘rugged individuality’ is a code for keeping women and African-Americans in their (subservient) ‘place.’ And rather than guns being used to equalize the power relations between white males and everyone else, what the author refers to as do-it-yourself (DIY) security just hardens the degree to which white male dominance continues to control the perceptions of crime, gender and race.
This is a complicated subject and I cannot really do justice to this book or fully discuss its subtle twists and turns. But it should come as no surprise that when we talk about anything related to gun culture (which certainly would embrace SYG) that we are basically talking about the South, because that’s where a majority of the civilian-owned guns and a majority of NRA members happen to be. And while SYG and CCW laws have spread far beyond Dixie, this region gave birth to those laws and this is where such laws have resulted in significant increases in ‘lawful’ violence against women and Blacks.
The South may have lost the Civil War, but the mind-set which justified slavery back then is the same mind-set that embraces inequality today. And anyone who believes that owning a gun endows them with more freedom than someone who is unarmed is drinking the same Kool-Aid that Jefferson Davis drank before Fort Sumter when he believed that Lincoln would back down. But plenty of that Kool-Aid is still going around.