Review by Julia Brown.
Though an avid reader, I typically stray away from one genre: histories. In the case of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense (Beacon Press, 2017) by Caroline E. Light, I am glad I broke my trend. Stand Your Ground is a page-turning account of the cultural and judicial history of self-defense and armed citizen laws in America, written at a time when understanding how the last 200 years shaped these laws is more important than ever. In her second book,
Light, director of undergraduate studies in the Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University, illuminates the framework behind—and the often chauvinistic execution of—some of America’s most beloved laws: stand-your-ground laws.
Light begins by outlining the 1806 Thomas Selfridge court case and the underlying societal norms that shape today’s laws. Historically, lethal self-defense in America was only acceptable in your home, while “protecting your castle,” and retreat was considered the proper way to defend yourself in public. Ultimately, “whiteness and masculinity, along with property ownership, were as critical to the distribution of political rights as the right to defend oneself” (18). As women and people of color could not own property, the right to defend oneself was limited to white men (and sometimes white women defending their virtue and thereby protecting their husbands’ property and honor). In Selfridge’s case, a frail white man who shot his assailant in the street, claiming self-defense, the jury found him not-guilty. Selfridge’s “case provided legal foundation for the gradual decay of the duty to retreat” by “[proving] that a man violently attacked in a public place might not be obligated to retreat before defending himself,” thus paving the way for the stand-your-ground laws in place today (30).
Stand Your Ground then discusses the effects the Civil War and its aftermath in the South had on self-defense law precedents. “Anxieties over white male vulnerability loomed” over many post-Civil War court cases (57). Comparing several similar self-defense cases, Light demonstrates the ways seemingly neutral laws highlighted “the racial implications of violence and criminality” showing that “at a time when ‘true manhood’ evoked white, property-owning citizenship and belonging, race shaped the boundaries differentiating self-defense from murder” (73). When white men and people of color acted in self-defense, more often than not juries found the white man not guilty while finding the person of color guilty of murder.
Following these anxieties forward in history, Light discusses America’s “collective amnesia” in retelling the Civil Rights Movement. While most histories recount the non-violent movement headed by Martin Luther King Jr., Light points out that without “organized, armed protection against Klan harassment and police brutality,” the non-violent movement would not have succeeded. As armed self-defense became front-and-center in the Civil Rights Movement, the NRA (“founded to support marksmanship, hunting, and gun safety”) transformed into a “gun rights” activist group spurred on by “the reactionary right—eager to roll back the accomplishments of recent struggles for social justice—and gun manufacturers” (127). The NRA, and other gun rights activists use the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement’s non-violent activists to disarm Black people and to hide their “white supremacist underpinnings” (15). Light goes on to detail the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s and the invitation of law enforcement into the home in attempt to criminalize domestic violence and make self-defense against domestic violence acceptable in the eyes of the law.
Stand Your Ground culminates in an explanation of the rise in concealed carry and lethal self-defense cases in America today. Light states, “All we need is a reasonable fear of danger to justify taking action to protect ourselves” (15). In many current cases that Light surveys, the law-abiding citizen around which America’s current self-defense laws are shaped is still a straight, white, property owning male. By illuminating the history behind stand-your-ground laws and the “ideal citizen” they protect, this book successfully “challenges our celebrations of individual self-defense” (17).
Brimming with fascinating accounts of America’s past through historical self-defense court cases, Stand Your Ground provides context for the “urgent cries for armed self-defense in the United States” and the “[excusing of] mass violence in the name of security for the few” filling the media today (186, 188). A well-researched and well-written history, this book ultimately illustrates the biases, passed down from before the Civil War, present in modern American laws. I highly recommend Stand Your Ground to anyone with an interest in social justice or American history.
Julia Brown has her master’s degree in English with a focus on medical humanities and medical writing from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is currently writing freelance and teaching writing and literature at Queensborough Community College and City College in New York.