January 03, 2013

Stand your (weak) ground

There was a really interesting feature on NPR yesterday evening about recent studies of "stand your ground" laws, which pretty much allow people to shoot other people wherever whenever they get scared.

Traditionally, the right of self defense existed in the home, although people were expected to take steps to retreat outside the home when threatened with attack. The "stand your ground" laws, which became controversial after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year old in Florida last year, allow people to use lethal force outside the home without being required to try to retreat.

 Short version: these laws seem to be associated with more homicides. This seems to be true both of comparisons with other states and with before and after studies in the same states. One study suggests that such laws are responsible for 500 to 700 additional deaths per year in the 23 states that have the laws.

A few thoughts occurred to me about this. But first:

*Disclosure 1: I don't work on gun issues, nor do I aspire to. They're pretty much a non-starter in West Virginia anyway.

*Disclosure 2: there are firearms to be found at Goat Rope Farm. More than the number of human residents by a ratio of 3:2, to be exact, although these are all of the rather lengthy hunting/varmint variety.

Disclosure 3: I have spent decades practicing unarmed martial arts which evolved as means of self defense as well as studying, teaching and practicing what the late great Bruce Lee called the art of fighting without fighting. I have found that the better one is at the second, the less likely one is to need the first.

So what follows is just a personal reaction. First, I have known people who felt the need to carry handguns with them wherever they went. I'm not talking about police officers or those who carry weapons as part of their professional responsibility.The ones I knew weren't any more likely than other people to be attacked. Presumably, this was just something they needed to feel safe. That always struck me as kind of sad. Relying on something like that is a bit like relying on some lethal addictive substance. It tends to make you weaker than you would otherwise be.

It's like relying on a fast car or a drug to give one a sense of personal power. It's much cooler to have the discipline to develop real power of one's own without need of external aids, whether this power is spiritual, mental or physical.

Second, although I don't disagree with the 18th century British legal scholar William Blackstone, who referred to self defense as "the primary law of nature," there are also responsibilities to avoid violent situations. These include efforts to de-escalate potentially violent situations as well as avoiding, evading or generally getting the hell out of there when de-escalation doesn't work.

When all else fails, then and only then is it ethically permissible to take physical measures and even these should be measured. One should only use as much effort as is needed to control the situation and not a bit more. I don't think it's responsible for an unarmed person to do serious damage to an attacker in a non-lethal situation, much less to jump several levels and just bust out a gun when somebody raises a voice.

There's a huge difference between real self defense and fear killing. These so-called "stand your ground" laws confuse the latter with the former.

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