A legalistic polemic arguing that the “natural right” of self-defense has been perverted by American gun culture.
Light (Women, Gender, and Sexuality/Harvard Univ.; That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South, 2014) sees behind American exceptionalism an ugly tradition of violence, initially reserved for white male property owners. Today, she witnesses a troubling movement toward “individual DIY security as the solution to our nation’s most urgent anxieties, [which] criminalizes many who do not fit the terms of idealized citizenship.” She attributes this to “the spread of perceived insecurity, as well as a lack of faith in the protective powers of the government and local police.” This contradicts the common-law roots of self-defense principles, which historically held a duty to retreat. Light examines the case of Thomas Selfridge in 1806, which “provided legal foundation for the gradual decay of the duty to retreat.” Particularly after the bitter collapse of Reconstruction, marked by violence against black self-determination, “nineteenth century debates over self-defense implicitly centered on the urgent need to protect white masculine honor.” These privileges were not extended to women and black people who killed in self-defense, leading civil rights pioneers like Ida B. Wells to paradoxically embrace armed self-defense as “human nature.” This counternarrative manifested in the fascinating tale of African-American defense leagues in the rural South during the civil rights era, which “characterized ‘armed self-reliance’ as a necessity” in the face of threats against community leaders. Today, Light sees gun culture as selectively reminiscent of these historical complexities and devoted to a covert white male supremacy at the expense of others’ safety. The author is a keen legal analyst, deftly examining obscure cases that underlie this historical narrative, but her narrow fixation on identity politics leads her to disparage the broad consensus that “the good citizen is one who takes her own safety seriously.”
A weighty consideration of the cultural politics behind disturbing flash points like the death of Trayvon Martin.