By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
How absolute is your right to use lethal force in self-defense? Should you be free to kill under any and all circumstances in which you feel threatened?
Dr. Brian H. Williams, a trauma surgeon and professor at the University of Chicago Medical School, recently wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece on laws that enable citizens to use firearms with few restrictions or liabilities, even if they can escape to safety.
“These laws promote vigilante justice, needless escalation of interpersonal conflicts, and are an increasing threat to public health and safety,” Williams wrote. “Stand-your-ground laws must be repealed.”
Williams, the author of the forthcoming book The Bodies Keep Coming: Dispatches from a Black Trauma Surgeon on Racism, Violence, and How We Heal (Sept.) cites a report by the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation that found Stand-Your-Ground increases firearm-related homicides while annually causing more deaths than all mass shootings combined.
Twenty-five states now allow private citizens to kill or wound others in perceived situations of personal threat. The most notorious case remains the 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. The incident, in which neighborhood watch captain Zimmerman confronted and shot Martin, made Zimmerman a celebrated hero of the political right, which strongly favors Stand-Your-Ground as a vital personal freedom.
In another major case, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old jogger, was suspected by residents of a South Georgia neighborhood of burglarizing a house under construction in 2020. Two local men chased him and shot him to death during the struggle that ensued. The pursuers claimed they felt threatened during the confrontation but were later convicted of a federal hate crime. Arbery was found to have been at the house in question but surveillance video suggested he was merely there seeking water. Other people had also been there illegally.
Both Martin and Arbery were Black. Zimmerman is Hispanic. Arbery’s killers were White, and their conviction was unusual. “An analysis of Department of Justice statistics by the Urban Institute found that if the shooter is White and the victim is Black, that shooting is deemed justified five times more often than if the situation is reversed,” Williams wrote. “Stand-your-ground laws place Black Americans at increased risk of violence, death, and criminality due to firearms.”
It’s painfully obvious that, if given the chance, frightened or angry people will resort to unnecessary violence, especially if having a gun feeds their sense of power. According to Williams, “Most uses of stand-your-ground laws are actually an escalation of interpersonal differences, and one study of cases in Florida for which stand-your-ground was used as a defense found that the majority (79%) of shooters could have retreated to safety.”
“Brute force first” is often the go-to option for the police, as the killings of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and Brionna Taylor in Louisville (to name just two) demonstrate. Many cities have created special law enforcement groups like the now-disbanded Scorpion Unit in Memphis to patrol and crack down on crime in hot-spot neighborhoods. Too often those units are encouraged by their commanders to be tough on suspects and the officers feel a sense of impunity, which increases the likelihood of them using unnecessary force.
Cops in Huntington Park, California are under fire for shooting and killing a knife-wielding double amputee who was trying to flee on his leg stumps. Watching the video, one wonders why it was necessary to riddle the suspect with 10 bullets. Even if he was dangerous (he’d attacked and seriously wounded a man), did cops really have no other alternative in this case?
Fortunately, public outcry and protests are forcing many police departments to revamp their training to include more de-escalation tactics. These are used by law enforcement officers in the UK, who do not carry guns. If you want to watch them in action, check out the TV series “999: What’s Your Emergency?” You’ll be amazed by how they can defuse volatile situations and subdue agitated, dangerous people without resorting to force.
America badly needs to embrace the value of de-escalation and nonviolence. The worst manifestation of our violence-as-solution mindset is the deadly January 6, 2021 siege of the Capitol, which the Republican Party claims was merely “legitimate political discourse.”
Unfortunately, the GOP keeps pushing for less restrictions on gun ownership in an angry, divided country already flooded with millions of easily-available weapons. In Missouri, the state’s Republican-controlled House voted down a measure that would ban minors from openly carrying weapons in public without adult supervision. Go ahead. Read that sentence again.
On Feb. 3, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal law that forbids the subjects of restraining orders for domestic abuse from possessing guns. Never mind that women are five times more likely to be killed by abusive partners with access to a firearm.
It boggles the rational mind that an ostensibly civilized country would allow anyone anywhere to own guns without permits or training or even a reliable record of responsible, rational behavior. As a school bus driver, I am required to pass a background check, be fingerprinted and regularly tested for drug use, pass written exams and road tests, and undergo weeks of training with annual refreshers. This is all for the sake of safety. But guns? Ours is an irrational society besotted by violence.
It’s telling that the Wild West chapter of America’s history holds a certain “romance” as an era of great personal freedom and rugged self-reliance. It was a time when people felt free to settle disputes with firearms and shoot first, ask questions later.
Just like now.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.