Ky Peterson was walking home in the small city of Americus, Georgia, when a man knocked him unconscious, dragged him to an abandoned trailer, and started raping him. His brothers heard him screaming, burst into the trailer, and pulled his rapist off him. Peterson — a 20-year-old black transgender man — had been raped before. Since then, he’d purchased a gun. As his rapist charged at him, Peterson took the gun from his backpack, pulled the trigger, and killed him.
Less than a year later, in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, 28-year-old George Zimmerman spotted a black 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin walking home in a hooded sweatshirt. Zimmerman called the cops to report a “suspicious guy” who appeared to be “up to no good” or “on drugs or something.” During the call, Zimmerman started following Martin, first in his car and then on foot. Shortly thereafter, during a physical altercation in which Zimmerman received minor injuries, he fatally shot Martin, who was unarmed.
Both Peterson and Zimmerman live in states with Stand Your Ground laws that allow people to use violence in response to a “reasonable” fear of death or serious injury. Both men claimed to be defending themselves. But Peterson was sentenced to 20 years (in a women’s prison) and Zimmerman walked free. In her timely and far-reaching new book, Stand Your Ground, historian Caroline Light takes the two cases as emblematic of America’s self-defense culture, which, in theory, celebrates a universal right to violent self-defense — but in practice places strong restrictions on who gets to hurt whom, and which fears get sanctioned as rational.
Disparities on this front have a long history in America. In the body of English common law on which American jurisprudence was based, there was a strong “duty to retreat.” Before meeting violence with violence, and certainly before killing your attacker, you first had to make an honest effort to simply get away. The one exception, known as the Castle Doctrine, held that, if you were attacked in your home, the duty to retreat evaporated. If you fought back, the law would protect you — or it might, depending on who you were. If you were a slave and your owner came across your doorstep looking to kill or rape you, the law would be little help. If you were a woman being beaten or raped by her husband, the law forbade you to fight back and barred you from testifying against him in court. Native Americans attacked at home by European colonists fought back at their own peril. Their “castles” were simply not as sacred as the white man’s.
Starting in the late 19th century, judges across the country issued rulings declaring the old “duty to retreat” an anachronism, one fundamentally at odds with the American frontier spirit. In the words of one ruling, self-defense was a right of “true manhood.” It went without saying that the “true man” was a white man. This was especially evident in the post-Civil War South. After Reconstruction fell apart, states across the former Confederacy quickly passed “black codes” that, among other restrictions, barred blacks from owning or carrying weapons. The federal troops who had enforced racial progress at gunpoint packed up and went home, and the killing of blacks by whites skyrocketed. In those rare cases where the judicial system got involved, white juries and white judges were almost always willing to believe white killers’ claims of self-defense.
Light deftly analyzes how this lopsided treatment has survived, in our legal system and also in the distortions that help define the historical memory of white America. Our schoolbooks and television specials are full of valorizing treatments of white men who greet potential threats with guns blazing. But the only black Americans who get to wear the halo of historical righteousness are those who can be identified, in hindsight, as having practiced what gets called “non-violent” resistance. This double standard remains the case despite reams of scholarship documenting how the venerated “non-violent” nodes of the civil rights movement had an intimate, even existential, reliance on gun-toting collaborators for safety.
Put simply: It remains the case that some people’s needs for violence are — in the eyes of the legal system, at least — more legitimate than others. Blacks who claim self-defense against whites succeed relatively rarely. Similarly, women who shoot their male abusers have a notoriously hard time convincing judges and juries that they were standing their ground. Now and then, the National Rifle Association has trotted out women’s safety (or, more rarely, minority civil rights) as part of greater efforts for looser restrictions on gun sales or use. Light mentions these rhetorical gambits several times, and they obviously infuriate her. Few organizations, she points out, have been more complicit than the NRA in stoking white gun owners’ reflexive, inaccurate association of non-white people — and “strangers” in general — with violence and criminality.
At first, I was puzzled by the relatively small number of pages Light spends exploring the now-famous Stand Your Ground laws that give her book its title. Thirty-three states had passed some form of these laws as of 2015, the American Bar Association found, starting with Florida in 2005. (Some states refer to them as Make My Day laws, a fact surely worth dwelling on for a minute or two, no matter your stance on gun control.) After Martin’s death, these laws came under national scrutiny, with disgusted calls for their repeal echoing loudly among the liberal commentariat. State-level challenges were proposed, and the Senate held hearings on problems with the law.
But the more time I spent following Light through history, the more obvious it became that these much-criticized laws are, in many ways, something of a red herring. The “duty to retreat” was never universal. The Castle Doctrine has continued to expand so that each white man’s body is a castle unto itself. So, while at first glance Stand Your Ground laws look like radical changes, in reality they are new coats of paint for old, systemic inequalities.
This is not to say that these laws have no impact. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that, in states where they have been passed, the homicide rate has increased.
It’s far from obvious that repealing Stand Your Ground laws would break that loop. As Light shows, the right to claim the protective mantle of self-defense has never been equally distributed in America. Stand Your Ground laws may be stark symbols of that reality, but they didn’t create it. Stand Your Ground didn’t kill Martin or keep Zimmerman out of jail. And it didn’t protect Peterson. Truly facing the problems of violence in America will mean following Light’s lead and digging deeper.