After the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, Harvard historian Caroline Light felt compelled to explore the roots of the American right to self-defense, which has helped turned the United States into a country with more guns than people.
In her new book, “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense,” Light traces the development of the notion of self-defense from English common law to contemporary stand-your-ground gun laws.
The Gazette sat down with Light to talk about her book, the rise of armed citizenship, and the idea that the right to self-defense has traditionally been wielded by the most privileged against the most vulnerable.
GAZETTE: In your book, you trace the history of the American right to self-defense to before the foundation of the United States. Where does this notion come from?
LIGHT: I traced the legal theory and ideology of lethal self-defense back to English common law principles, which are foundational to what would eventually become the United States legal system. But self-defense had serious limitations in the English context. People in the United States forget that originally English common law doctrine held a “duty to retreat” that meant that you were obligated to retreat in the face of an attack. The one exception was enunciated in a 1604 court case involving an intrusion of agents of the king into a man’s private dwelling. These are the origins of the Castle Doctrine, which says that you do not have the duty to retreat when you’re in your home because “a man’s home is his castle.” This doctrine originated as an exemption to the duty to retreat, but in the United States it turned into a very expansive set of notions about who is allowed to fight back lethally against whom. The ideology of lethal self-defense is very selective in the U.S., even if we claim to be gender-blind and race-blind. When people in the U.S. said, “A man’s home is his castle,” what they actually meant was, “A white, property-owning man’s home is his castle,” and he’s allowed to fight back.
GAZETTE: How did the notion of self-defense that emerged in the 17th century as a privilege for white men who owned property, as you argue, evolve over the centuries?
LIGHT: When we look back into the roots of self-defense laws in the United States, we also see that they’re tethered to colonialism, legalized slavery, and the legal doctrine of coverture, which meant that married women couldn’t own any property because their rights were literally “covered” by their husbands. All of these different principles of exclusion were embedded in what would become the United States’ legal system. And as I traced them through time, even as laws started becoming more inclusive, self-defense laws were adjudicated chiefly to protect white men and their property. That took off in the post-Reconstruction era, late in the 19th century, when we see court cases in several states where white men are allowed to fight back lethally even when they aren’t in their home. We don’t see anything like that happening for African-Americans because in the wake of the Civil War, black codes and vagrancy laws, etc., restricted black freedom and access to full citizenship. And most black codes prohibited African-Americans from possessing weapons for self-defense. Similarly, women couldn’t defend themselves against violence from their husbands. I argue that lethal self-defense has been legalized for the most privileged even if, rhetorically, we celebrate self-defense as something universal to all citizens. ...