A Q&A with Caroline Light
After the fatal shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, conservative legislators and gun lobbyists claimed the tragedies could have been avoided if the victims had been armed. Despite inevitable questions about gun control, there is a sharp increase in firearm sales in the wake of every mass shooting.
America’s attachment to violent self-defense predates the contemporary gun rights movement. It is based on the notion that it takes certain “good guys with guns” to protect us all from the “bad guys with guns.” Scholar Caroline Light explores the development of our country’s ascension as the world’s foremost nation of armed citizenship in Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense. Her book was released on February 14 this year. In this Q&A, Light tells us what Stand Your Ground laws are, whom the laws actually protect, and how they reflect our country’s fraught history of race relations.
Christian Coleman: To start off, could you explain to us what Stand Your Ground laws are?
Caroline Light: These are laws that exist in some form in thirty-three states that exempt people from the duty to retreat, even when they are outside of their homes, if they “reasonably” suspect someone is threatening them with death or serious bodily harm. Ordinarily, the duty to retreat obligated you to first try to avoid a violent confrontation before meeting force with force, unless you were threatened in your home. Starting in Florida in 2005, Stand Your Ground laws have granted some people an exemption from criminal prosecution when they claim to have killed another person in self-defense, as long as their fear of the deceased can be seen as “reasonable” in court. In some jurisdictions, SYG laws make it very difficult for police to arrest someone in the wake of a deadly encounter, because they must first establish evidence that the killing was not in reasonable self-defense.
CC: You trace the origin of modern-day SYG laws to the “Castle Doctrine” of the 1600s. What did this doctrine entail?
CL: Starting in early 1600s in England, the Castle Doctrine exempted people from the duty to retreat when they were in their home or “Castle.” The logic of “a man’s home is his castle” was that a man should be able to protect himself and his family if attacked in his own home, but beyond the boundaries of his home, he needed to retreat before fighting back. What we often lose sight of in contemporary discussions of the castle doctrine is that it was a product of a particular time in which women of all races and non-white men were excluded from the ability to defend themselves or their “castles.” In the early Republic US, the castle doctrine was limited to property-owning white men who were authorized to defend their homes and families with lethal violence. Native people, enslaved people, and most women could not invoke the castle doctrine’s protective logic, and traces of these racial and gendered exclusions haunt our prevailing notions of what counts as “reasonable fear” today.
CC: What are some examples of how we see the “Castle Doctrine” enacted and reinforced today?
CL: For example, women who “stand their ground” against abusive husbands or boyfriends often find themselves criminalized because judges and juries have difficulty perceiving their fears as reasonable. Similarly, SYG laws have been found to exacerbate racial iniquities in criminal justice because law enforcement, judges, juries, and prosecutors are subject to widespread implicit biases that position black men as “reasonable” threats to white safety and property. In a nation that continues to criminalize blackness, many people are more willing to believe a white person who claims to have killed a black person in self-defense, even if the deceased was unarmed.
CC: How has our country’s history of selectively legalized self-defense been hidden in plain sight?
CL: Our nation has a long history of excluding certain populations—particularly people of color and women of all races and ethnicities—from the right to protect themselves from systemic violence. Even as the duty to retreat eroded in the wake of the Civil War, allowing property-owning white men to “meet force with force” when they felt threatened, African Americans who fought back against white supremacist violence and women of all races who resisted intimate partner violence were criminalized. The law did not recognize their right to fight back when they were threatened by socially dominant actors. When the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense took up arms to resist white supremacist violence from civilians and law enforcement, the government retaliated by passing state laws restricting the open carry of firearms and by launching an all-out assault on the organization, including COINTELPRO’s covert assassinations of the group’s leadership. Today we can see this history in the statistics showing that black men, women, and children are more likely to be subject to police violence, even when they are unarmed. They are also likely to be criminalized when they attempt to engage in the practices of “armed citizenship” that gun rights activists celebrate as a universal right.
CC: What role does the NRA play in perpetuating the white supremacist vigilante violence that’s become naturalized—or ‘normalized’—in the public eye as a legitimate mode of protection?
CL: Since the 1970s, the NRA has embraced an ideology of “armed citizenship” based on unfettered gun rights and robust legal immunities for those who claim to have used their firearms in self-defense. However, this ideology is based in a logic of fear that positions certain kinds of people as “bad guys,” dangerous and threatening strangers against whom all “law-abiding citizens” (aka “good guys”) must be armed. Some examples of these threatening strangers include “thugs” or “gang-bangers,” “illegal” immigrants, and “terrorists,” and each figure of stranger-danger is racially coded as non-white. Gun rights activists invoke these figures of threat to justify the expansion of Stand Your Ground laws and unfettered gun-carry while distracting us from the real sources of systemic violence.
CC: A 2016 study by JAMA Internal Medicine found that gun-related homicides increased by 31.6 percent since Florida became the first state to pass a stand-your-ground law in 2005. And since 2005, thirty-three states have adopted similar laws. Why are these laws adopted if homicide rates are going up?
CL: This is the million dollar question. For many supporters of unrestrained gun rights, the increase in homicides might be explained away by the so-called increase in crime that conservative law-makers and our president have referenced as justification for enhanced militarization of civilians and police alike. Perhaps in their minds, more homicides mean that more armed citizens are needed to “Stand their Ground” against the “bad guys” who threaten our security. So we end up with a circular logic that stubbornly poses more guns as the solution to more gun deaths. What I try to show in my book is that our self-defensive mindset, the naturalization of a “kill or be killed” mentality, blinds us to the way in which armed citizenship has always been a right for the few at the expense of safety for the many.
CC: In your author’s note, you wrote, “This book represents one white Southerner’s effort to excavate an uncomfortable past in the name of justice for our future.” Tell us about the personal significance this topic has for you.
CL: I grew up in Virginia, with parents who used guns for hunting and recreation, but in the past few decades I’ve witnessed a shift in which firearms are perceived not as sporting equipment, but as vital implements for individual security. This shift to what I call “Do-it-yourself(DIY)-security citizenship” is characterized by the belief that a good citizen is an armed citizen and a growing sense of anxiety-motivated gun-carry. It’s also invested in a deep-seated historical amnesia that frames racism as a remnant of the past, and armed citizenship as a universal, colorblind, and gender-equalizing solution to widespread insecurity.
About Caroline Light
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.