An unsettling look at America's culture of self-defense

Caroline Light describes herself as “a historian who studies the ways in which collectively shared memories—the histories that take shape as truth in the public imagination—influence national belonging.” The imagined public truth Light takes on in this timely book hardly begins (or ends) with the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by an armed member of a neighborhood watch group, on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla., but it is the event that brought her topic to national attention. In 2005 Florida became the first of 33 states to enact “stand your ground” laws. S.Y.G. laws typically expand the historic reach of the “castle doctrine,” the right in English common law to self-defense on one’s own property, beyond domestic boundaries, and offer immunity from prosecution to those judged to make a reasonable claim to having felt threatened. George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer, became the poster child for stand-your-ground laws.

Advertisement
Stand Your Ground by Caroline E. Light 

Beacon Press. 240p, $25.95

The problem, according to Light, is that the very people most likely to need the protection of such laws, vulnerable and stigmatized minorities including young black males, are not only the people least likely to enjoy that protection in practice, but are also the most likely to be perceived as the threats that justify white men standing their ground. Light makes her argument by way of rich historical cases from two centuries, troubling statistics (Americans represent 5 percent of the world’s population but own 40 percent of its guns) and a critique of “a vast ideological matrix built upon racist, heteropatriarchal, and capitalist privilege, intended to protect the white castle, at all costs.” All in all, it’s a compelling and deeply disturbing argument, but I fear some who most need to hear it will invoke the pre-S.Y.G. “duty to retreat” when threatened by such language. For those with a tolerance for it, this is an indispensable look at a dark side of American history and culture. In the dominant imagined public truth, some people belong more than others.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement
More: Books / Guns

The latest from america

The narrator’s voice in Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel is a subtle balance of crisp and curmudgeonly, indulging in dark comedy as a distancing, if not even a coping, mechanism.
Peter MorganOctober 19, 2018
Natalia Imperatori-Lee draws upon a variety of sources to develop an ecclesiology that is shaped by narratives as much as dogmatic theology.
Jennifer Owens-JofréOctober 19, 2018
After a fierce battle for the presidential nomination in June 1932, Al Smith shakes hands with Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt at the state Democratic convention in Albany, N.Y., Oct. 4, 1932. (AP photo)
Both sons of New York, Alfred E. Smith and Franklin Roosevelt were close political allies. Until the national Democratic convention of 1932.
Maurice Timothy ReidyOctober 18, 2018
Heartland is a chronicle of lives and places; a story of the women and men on the lower end of the working class in rural Kansas who nurtured, challenged and continue to inform Sarah Smarsh's story.
Bill McGarveyOctober 18, 2018