Episode 19: Gun Rights & Democracy?
This week we ask, to what extent are gun rights compatible with a well-functioning democracy?
Gun rights have dominated headlines the past two weeks. This isn’t the first time that debate around gun control has erupted following a mass shooting, but momentum and teenage advocacy have some people believing that this time the conversation won’t fade. With strong advocates arguing both sides of the issue, it can be difficult to deeply reflect on the role of guns and self-defense in a modern democracy.
This week, host Chris Robichaud is joined by Caroline Light, Harvard Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Light, an expert on America’s relationship with self-defense, provides insight into today’s debate over gun control.
In this Episode
Caroline Light has served as Women, Gender, and Sexuality Director of Studies since 2008. Prior to her arrival at Harvard, she worked at Duke University, where she taught courses in Gender and Sexuality Studies, First Year Writing, and in the Global Americas Focus Program. Her research explores the ways in which race, gender, and region have shaped collective (mis)memory and archival silence. Light’s first book, That Pride of Race and Character: the Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South (NYU Press, 2014) illuminates the experience of southern Jewish assimilation through the lens of benevolent outreach to reveal how gendered and racialized performances of elite, white cultural capital served as a critical mode of survival for a racially liminal community of southerners. Her recent book, Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense (Beacon Press, 2017) provides a critical genealogy of our nation’s ideals of armed citizenship. Beginning with the centuries-old adage “a man’s home is his castle,” she tracks the history of our nation’s relationship to lethal self-defense, from the duty to retreat to the “shoot first, ask questions later” ethos that prevails in many jurisdictions today. Ultimately, she contends that the contemporary appeal to “stand your ground” masks its exclusionary commitment to security for the few at the expense of the many.
After a young, white gunman killed twenty-six people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, conservative legislators lamented that the tragedy could have been avoided if the schoolteachers had been armed and the classrooms equipped with guns. Similar claims were repeated in the aftermath of other recent shootings — after nine were killed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and in the aftermath of the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Despite inevitable questions about gun control, there is a sharp increase in firearm sales in the wake of every mass shooting.
Yet, this kind of DIY-security activism predates the contemporary gun rights movement — and even the stand-your-ground self-defense laws adopted in thirty-three states, or the thirteen million civilians currently licensed to carry concealed firearms. As scholar Caroline Light proves, support for “good guys with guns” relies on the entrenched belief that certain “bad guys with guns” threaten us all.
Stand Your Ground explores the development of the American right to self-defense and reveals how the original “duty to retreat” from threat was transformed into a selective right to kill. In her rigorous genealogy, Light traces white America’s attachment to racialized, lethal self-defense by unearthing its complex legal and social histories — from the original “castle laws” of the 1600s, which gave white men the right to protect their homes, to the brutal lynching of “criminal” Black bodies during the Jim Crow era and the radicalization of the NRA as it transitioned from a sporting organization to one of our country’s most powerful lobbying forces.
In this convincing treatise on the United States’ unprecedented ascension as the world’s foremost stand-your-ground nation, Light exposes a history hidden in plain sight, showing how violent self-defense has been legalized for the most privileged and used as a weapon against the most vulnerable.