As Americans slaughter each other with ever more high-powered weapons, nothing happens to stop it. Sure, half the nation or more supports gun control and many support the outright ban on many of these weapons. But a small and very loud minority are obsessed with guns as the last line of self-defense, whether against scary (read, black) people invading their homes or the big evil government. This is irrational and ridiculous, but it’s one of the central defining features of modern America.
Why has this happened? What is wrong with this country? Caroline Light’s book from last year helps us understand how the roots of these problems run back to the foundational myths of the United States. Light begins with the English common law that the American legal system was based upon, noting that while a man’s home may be his castle that he has the right to defend, there is also a “duty to retreat” that makes violence a last-resort option. But American culture soon exploded that part of the legal code. In particular, she looks at the 1806 case of Thomas Selfridge, a Federalist who armed himself expecting conflict with a Jeffersonian and ended up shooting the guy’s son when he thought the guy was about to attack him. The case revolved around Selfridge’s choice to arm himself walking on the streets. While the prosecution and judge pushed hard on Selfridge’s duty to retreat, the jury was unconvinced and bought into the defense’s ideas of self-defense and honor and quickly let him walk free. This began the decay of the duty to retreat principle. Part of the problem is in the individuality at the foundation of the nation, a country based on men defending their property from whoever they saw as oppressing them. The duty to retreat did not make sense with what it meant to be an American and increasingly, Americans simply refused to abide by it.
Of course, that principle was never applied universally, even as it decayed. In short, armed violence became something connected with white manhood that could be deployed at any time against people of color or against women of any race. Legally, women’s only right to use violence against men was if a white woman was protecting herself against a rapist and even that was more about protecting a husband’s right to his wife’s body than any sort of women’s rights. After all, husbands could do whatever they wanted to their wives and the courts would back them up. By the early twentieth century, the absolute right of men to beat and kill their wives was declining, but not the connection between a woman’s sexuality, guns, and the need to defend the home. Gun companies created advertisements based around scared white women needing a gun to defend themselves against the scary people trying to break in and rape them. Interestingly, these advertisements could also be construed by women as giving them a weapon to protect themselves from their husbands and no doubt some women did have that in mind when purchasing one.
The connections between white armed violence and supposed threats from African-Americans became especially true in the Reconstruction South, where “self-defense” often meant the horrifying lynchings of any black person standing up for themselves, or simply living. The Fourteenth Amendment might have given African-Americans citizenship rights, but that did not mean that white men would allow the government to enforce those rights. Fear of black political power, framed through the constant references to black men raping white women, which was central to Birth of a Nation, among other cultural productions, which provoked oppressive mob violence. Somewhat paradoxically, this meant that for people resisting violence in America, armed self-defense became central to what it meant to be an America, since it was so one-sided. People such as Ida Wells, who spent her life resisting lynching and had to flee Memphis herself after not only writing newspaper columns attacking lynchers but also pointing out their frequent sexual relationships and rapes of black women, were central to creating these connections. This certainly continued during the civil rights movement, with people such as Robert Williams, a local NAACP leader in North Carolina, openly calling for armed self-defense, years before the Black Panthers became famous for it. Of course, when the Panthers did use armed self-defense as the bulwark for their rights, which included much more about basic human rights than violence against whites, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan would support gun control. Making connections between police power, white violence, and black oppression simply was not going to stand for Reagan and other conservatives.
The modern gun rights movement, or DIY-security citizenship as Light puts it, evolved out of white backlash to civil rights, but again, has roots going back much further. When civil rights activists and feminists demanded that the state intervene in the white male massacre of women of all races as well as black men, the National Rifle Association transformed itself from a sportsmen organization to one of white backlash that routinely used imagery and language around black riots and criminal acts to increase gun sales. That this version of citizenship is routinely deployed against people of color today is no coincidence, as her discussion of Stand Your Ground laws and the murder of Trayvon Martin shows. Moreover, the same laws contribute to the entrenchment of misogyny, as Marissa Alexander’s imprisonment demonstrated. Whereas George Zimmerman walked free in Florida, Alexander was initially sentenced to twenty years in prison for shooting her estranged husband who was attacking her. In short, American gun culture is both racist and misogynist, a relic but one that has become even more weaponized in recent decades as white men feel insecure about changes in the country, ranging from a black president to feminism.
Usefully, Light does not attempt to overload the reader with detail. This is a book that can skip decades and then not go into the level of historical exploration that some historians might desire. But this also allows her story to be accessible to the general public, which is really the point anyway. Light is one of many U.S. historians who have regeared how we right to provide narrative histories to the public, but unlike the previous generations of these histories that glorified the nation’s past, this new generation seeks to give people usable pasts to help them fight the injustices of the present. Overall, this is a great book for anyone who wants a more in-depth understanding of just what the hell is wrong with the United States in the twenty-first century. You should buy it.