Does Stand Your Ground Work? Sure Does If You Want To Shoot Someone.

Caroline Light’s provocative and original book, Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self Defense, is making its official debut next week and you can pick up a copy at (where else?) Amazon but I’m sure it will be at your independent bookseller as well.  Its appearance, incidentally, will no doubt coincide with the beginning of another attempt by Gun-nut Nation to push a bill through Congress that will let anyone with a concealed-carry license carry his gun through all 50 states.

light_standyourground_2             The idea that a gun license should be no different than a driver’s license has been a cherished gun-nut dream since then-Senator Larry Craig came out of his men’s room stall to speak in favor of a national, concealed-carry bill on the Senate floor. The bill is routinely filed every two years, it has always been just as routinely ignored, but guess who’s sitting in his office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue just waiting to sign such a bill into law?  And what better way to rev up his sturm und drang base and take their minds off the fact that he can’t really get anything done than to announce that they can now run around anywhere in the United States carrying their guns?

And this is what concealed-carry is really all about, namely, playing out a fantasy that I can protect myself from all those street thugs and bandidos because I’m carrying a gun. The fact that most of the folks who have concealed-carry licenses happen to live in places with little or no violent crime is entirely beside the point.  I really loved it when Trump-o said he could stand on the 5th Avenue sidewalk, shoot someone down and his supporters would still give him their votes. If he did, it would be the first time that a violent crime was committed on 5th Avenue since I don’t know when. But that didn’t stop Trump from bragging about how he allegedly walks around carrying a gun.

Caroline Light’s book isn’t about concealed-carry per se, it’s really a study of a peculiarly American legal phenomenon known as Stand Your Ground (SYG.) Because other Western countries may make it more difficult to get a concealed-carry license, but they are issued if you can show cause.  On the other hand, SYG laws are a peculiarly American phenomenon, and Professor Light does a first-rate job of explaining how and why our ‘love affair’ with lethal, self-defense departs so dramatically from Common Law traditions which, in England and other British colonial zones, don’t support the SYG legal position at all.

When the Supreme Court gave Americans a Constitutional protection in 2008 to keep handguns in the home for self-defense, the majority based its reasoning on a rather arbitrary analysis of the phrase ‘keep and bear arms.’ But according to Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, it also reflected an American ‘tradition’ of using guns, particularly handguns, for personal defense. What Light shows is that from the very beginnings of the country, the earliest legal cases which codified SYG involved physical disputes that were settled with a gun. I’m not sure that we yet fully understand exactly how and why guns proliferated in the United States, but the connection between gun ownership and the legal sanction of SYG is made very clear in this book.

The problem we have today, however, is that with so many guns floating around, what to the shooter may be a defensive act could be an offensive act to the person who gets shot.  Recently a 60-year old St. Louis man was found not guilty of assault after he shot and killed a 13-year old kid at a distance of 70 feet.  The teenager was running away after breaking into the man’s car, but under Missouri law, since the man felt ‘threatened,’ he had the right to yank out his gun. What kind of country do we live in where something like this can occur?  Some answers to that question are provided in Caroline Light’s new and important book.

 

 

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Why Do Americans Stand Their Ground? Because The Law Says We Can.

Last September I reviewed Caroline Light’s book, Stand Your Ground, and said it was a must-read.  The book is now about to be published, so I thought I would go back and discuss what I didn’t cover in my previous review.  Last time I discussed the major theme of the book, which is how and why America departed from the British, common-law tradition of retreating in the face of a direct threat and replaced it with laws which basically sanction the use of homicidal force in just about any kind of direct confrontation that might occur.  And what’s the most efficient way to respond to a real or imagined threat? We all know the answer to that.

laws           This time, however, I want to look at the issue which is somewhat tangential to Professor Light’s primary concern, but nevertheless must be addressed. At the same time that states began passing SYG laws, they also began easing restrictions on the ability of citizens to walk around with guns, two legal developments that are promoted vigorously by Gun-nut Nation, and which may set the legislative gun agenda on Capitol Hill in the Age of Trump.

For SYG and CCW the argument in favor goes like this: gun-owners are extremely law-abiding, people with concealed-carry permits even more so, bad guys will always try to avoid a criminal situation where their victim might be armed, hence, the armed citizen protects society from crime.  The NRA has been peddling this formula for more than twenty years, they trot it out every time an act of gun violence occurs in places where citizens should be able to carry guns (schools, airports, etc.) and Trump vigorously promoted this nonsense at every opportunity during the campaign.

But what if it’s not nonsense?  What if the end result of people walking around with guns is no real increase in gun-violence?  In that case, what difference would it make if a bunch of children masquerading as adults want to pretend they can behave like citizen-protectors and use their guns to shoot the bad guys and reduce our risk of harm?  The problem is that the evidence on the value of people carrying guns and playing cops and robbers is ambiguous, if not wholly incorrect, but the counter-argument, that the presence of armed citizens increases the risk of gun violence is also not a proven fact.

On the pro-gun side we have, as always, the works of Gary Kleck and John Lott. On the basis of 221 completed telephone interviews, Kleck decided that armed citizens were responsible for preventing upwards of 2 million crimes each year. Kleck’s fantasy has been more or less consigned to the dustbin and replaced by John Lott’s statistical mish-mash which nobody else can validate or reproduce. He says that when the number of concealed-carry licenses goes up, violent crime goes down.  Lott could teach Donald Trump a few things about how to get caught in a lie and keep insisting it’s the truth.

For GVP, the evidence pointing to increased gun violence in SYG states is not entirely conclusive but it’s strong.  On the other hand, the argument that letting people walk around ‘strapped’ generates more gun violence is less clear.  The numbers of gun deaths committed by CCW-holders averages roughly 100 per year – that’s not even 1 percent of all gun homicides and in many states the toll is less than 1 per year.

I like Caroline Light’s book – concise, readable and the analysis of court decisions is very well done.  It’s too bad it will only be taken seriously by advocates on one side.  The other side is too busy awaiting the day that every single last, bothersome gun law will finally be put to bed.  But a funny thing seems to be happening in DC because more people may show up to rally against Trump than to celebrate his great day. And most of the folks who give Trump low marks so far happen to be people who aren’t enamored of guns.  So we’ll see what we see.

 

 

An Important Book On Gun Violence Is Worth Waiting For.

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.

blacks-gunsNow 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.