Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Self Defense, "Stand Your Ground", and the Choices We Make

Heaven knows there's been plenty of ink spilled already about the Trayvon Martin shooting. There are federal and state investigations, hearings on Capitol Hill, and a host of folks calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman. There are folks blaming Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and folks defending it; folks condemning lax gun control laws and folks claiming this is another example of gun self-defense; and everywhere, "hoodie protests" to complain about the very real issues of profiling (on race, class, or otherwise).

As usual, folks look at a case with plenty of ambiguity and see what they want to see. I'm not much different - I look at this through the lens of my own experience, like everybody else. I'm not really sure what I want to see here. But there is one issue that I don't think anyone's picked up on - the nature of "self defense".

It has become a given in America that "self defense" means, most of the time, carrying a gun. The vast majority of our arguments are about guns - where you can and can't carry them, who can or can't have a permit to carry one (or whether you even need a permit at all). Our national conversation assumes, tacitly, that guns are the primary means that people can use to defend themselves.

This is a mistake for two reasons. First, as a defensive technology guns are terrible. They are inherently offensive. I can't prevent you from hurting me with a gun except by hurting - possibly killing - you. Indeed, guns are a particularly strong form of offense, because of their strong proclivity to kill. Judging from the stories we see, it's very easy to kill someone with a gun, and rather difficult to merely wound. They are roughly equivalent to nuclear weapons at the interpersonal level - they have a very all-or-nothing quality, and unlike nuclear weapons (where one country might survive a first strike and be able to strike back) they promote a shoot-first, preemption logic.

The second reason that focusing on guns as self defense is a mistake is that there are lots of other options. There are chemical agents, like mace and pepper spray, that are widely available, easy to use (as easy as a gun, certainly), and non-lethal. There are devices like tasers that can be deadly, but usually aren't, and also aren't any harder to use than guns. And many of these options don't require a permit or any particular paperwork.

Then there's the option of simply learning to defend yourself. In the Martin shooting, Zimmerman's claim is that he had to shoot Martin because Martin was beating him up with his bare hands. Setting aside the legality question - what theory of violence allows us to escalate to the ultimate penalty immediately? What happened to principles of proportionality? Shooting someone as a response to a bare-handed attack is a bit like Israel launching a nuclear strike on Gaza when Hamas fires some rockets over the wall. We don't accept this at an international level - why does this make sense at the interpersonal level?

But this is exactly the logic we accept when we call guns "self defense". Yes, it's true that if someone else has a gun and is farther than arm's reach from me, my only chance to defend myself is with a gun, by shooting them first. I'm not saying that guns are worthless as protection in all cases. But when facing an unarmed assailant, a gun is simply an inappropriate response. Legal or illegal, it is wrong.

So here's what puzzles me. George Zimmerman, whatever his views on race or hoodies or people who look suspicious, put himself on a volunteer neighborhood watch. He expected to find "suspicious" people, and he obviously planned to confront them. And his plan to defend himself was to carry a gun. Not a can of pepper spray, not a taser. Not to learn how to defend himself against an unarmed assailant using only his bare hands. Just to carry a gun. That, to me, was the choice he made - long before he laid eyes on Trayvon Martin.

So here's the takeaway for me. Most of us defend ourselves first and foremost by avoiding situations where we might be attacked. And for a lot of people, that works pretty well. If you live in a gated suburb of Orlando, that should work fine. Some people - like Zimmerman - put themselves in potential danger as a service to the rest of the community. That's their choice. But if you're going to do that - if you think you might be confronted by someone potentially hostile - you need to develop a range of responses to defend yourself. Buy a can of pepper spray and learn to use it. Better still, study self defense or take up a martial art. Chances are good that there are at least a half-dozen schools within 20 miles of wherever you're sitting. Is that harder than learning to use a gun? Sure - becoming competent in a martial art takes years and lots of practice. It's not easy. But would you rather say to some kid's parents, "sorry I killed your son - I was lazy and guns are easier"?

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