In a brilliant and spellbinding book, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are, Frans De Waal describes an experiment in which a bunch of chimpanzees walked over some partially-hidden grapefruits and then later in the afternoon when the group were dozing off in the trees, one of the chimps, Dandy, made a beeline back to the grapefruits and devoured every one. Had this chimp tried to eat one of the grapefruits when the other chimps were around he probably would have been able, at best, to eat one or two. But by developing a strategy that avoided confrontation with the other chimps he was able to reap a much greater reward.
I was reminded of this story by a report (thank you MH) about an 11-year old boy in Alabama who picked up a 9mm pistol and shot someone who had ‘invaded’ his home. Now the whole episode still remains to be sorted out, but in fact the kid didn’t shoot the intruder because otherwise he would have been hurt, he fired his gun as the ‘bad guy’ was trying to jump over a back-yard fence and run away. The teen-age shooter’s mother said she didn’t know the identity of the burglar, but he had burglarized their home before. Huh?
It turns out that 22 states, including Alabama, have passed “Stand Your Ground” laws in the last ten years, although of late there have been some attempts to revise or scale back the extent of such laws. But basically such a law gives an individual the right to use deadly force, not just in their home, but in just about any circumstances where they believe that otherwise they might be harmed or killed. And the problem with such laws is that it may be used as a defense in the case cited above, even though the youngster shot someone who was running away.
As you might suspect, states with this law have experienced a substantial increase in justifiable homicides, even while the overall homicide rate continues to slowly dwindle down. A report issued by our friends at Everytown found a 53% increase in justifiable homicides in states where STG laws were enacted, with a doubling of that number where the victims of justified murders were black. Gee, what a surprise that violence, even state-sanctioned violence falls disproportionately on the shoulders of African-American men.
So there are two problems, it seems to me, with these laws. First, the laws place the burden of proving that the homicide was not justifiable on the individuals least likely to be able to defend themselves in court because they just happen to be dead. But second, and more important, is the idea that we are justifying and embracing a form of behavior that rewards people for not trying to avoid confrontations and, if anything, for taking what might have been a brief and otherwise harmless difference of opinion and escalating it into a deadly and ultimately lethal fight. And what is the mechanism that always, in the classic words of Lester Adelson, “converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing?“ A gun.
Now at this point if you want to send me a snarky email about your God-given right to defend yourself against criminals, terrorists or Hillary Clinton, save yourself some time. The purpose of this comment is to provoke discussion among people who are genuinely concerned about America’s seeming infatuation with refusing to back down; refusing to find another, non-violent way; refusing to acknowledge the possibility that a non-confrontational response to a threat may, in fact, yield better results.
Which brings me back to Dandy the chimp who realized he had a choice between fighting with the other chimps over who would eat the grapefruits as opposed to waiting until he was alone and could eat all the fruit himself. Now maybe if Dandy had a Glock he wouldn’t have needed to wait. But if he had a Glock, another chimp doubtless would have owned a Ruger or a Smith. Then what?