At the risk of turning this blog into a gun show, yesterday's Tom Tomorrow 'toon is followed by a Lockean analysis of gun rights (and nuts). Philosophy prof Firmin DeBrabander offers a critique of the Natural Law appeal of the gun-crowd: the Divine Right to shoot an unarmed person and kill that person. Think Quentin Trantino's hit man in "Pulp Fiction" (Samuel L. Jackson, not Laurence Fishburne) who recites a passage from the Old Testament before pulling the trigger on his victim. If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of the number of bullets that can balance on the head of a pin, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Locke and Load: The Fatal Error Of The "Stand Your Ground" Philosophy
By Firmin DeBrabander
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The anger and protest first sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, was stoked again last week with the verdict in the trial of Michael Dunn.
In 2012, Dunn opened fire into a car full of black teenagers in a convenience store parking lot after they refused to turn down the volume of the “thug music” coming from their S.U.V. One of the teenagers, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, was struck several times and died. During the trial, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was invoked in Dunn’s defense. Dunn was found guilty on attempted murder charges, but not on a first-degree murder charge for killing Davis. The jury was unable to decide whether Dunn protected himself against Davis or murdered him. Once again, Stand your Ground was at the center of a murder case mired in racial discord.
Florida’s Stand your Ground statute says that a person may use force, “including deadly force if [he] reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself …” It is a logical extension of the increasingly expansive gun legislation in many parts of the country. Ohio recently approved its own version of the law, and others are poised to join in. Still, controversies surrounding the law continue to pile up.
Last month in Tampa, Curtis Reeves, a retired police officer, shot another man during an argument at a movie theater. Chad Oulson had irritated Reeves by texting as the movie began (it was learned afterward that he was texting the babysitter at home with his sick child). The two men argued; Oulson stood to face Reeves and threw popcorn at him. Reeves then pulled his handgun from his pocket and killed Oulson. Reeves’s lawyer, Stephen Romine, announced his intention to invoke Stand Your Ground in his client’s defense.
The letter of the law, Romine argued, is concerned only with whether “Reeves thought Chad Oulson would hurt him.” A report in The Times noted that Mr. Dunn was subject to similar protections: “[U]nder the law, Mr. Dunn needed only to have been convinced that he saw a shotgun, whether or not one was present.”
I believe that Stand Your Ground has already done damage to civil society by encouraging gun owners to carry their weapons in public, and reach for them quickly, instinctively. It promises to escalate minor altercations into deadly conflicts. And the law will surely motivate others to be armed, too, if only to protect themselves from trigger-happy citizens like Reeves or Dunn. Stand Your Ground propels us into the worst kind of armed society.
But certainly not all agree. Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, has offered this defense of the law, urging us to sympathize with those who would “stand their ground”: “Have you ever been threatened? I mean you talk to crime victims in the country… it’s the most terrifying moment of their life. They really are in a state of overwhelming reactive panic. Instinctively, they’ll do anything at that point to save themselves.” Such a threat is a highly personal affair — we can’t hope to understand or appreciate the terror, and how people measure it. Don’t judge them, LaPierre says. To judge them calmly after the fact and say, well, he could have run away, or defused the situation, that is too abstract, aloof, pompous, even insulting. It smacks of the elitism typical of gun critics, LaPierre argues. “This duty to retreat may sound fine at an Ivy League cocktail party,” he complains, “it doesn’t work very well in the real world of crime victims.”
In a certain light, the statute is a great victory for the sovereignty of the individual, empowering each person to be his own judge and executive of the law in the heat of the moment. Such a view is often supported by way of reference to “natural rights,” divine (biblical) authority, and even in some cases, philosophical theory. Among the most important intellectual allies referenced in the American defense of self-defense is John Locke, the Enlightenment thinker who profoundly influenced America’s founding fathers and our present notion of liberal society.
Last year, not long after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the National Review columnist David French drew significant attention when he wrote, “gun control represents not merely a limitation on a constitutional right, but a limitation on a God-given right of man that has existed throughout the history of civil society.” French’s argument is heavy on biblical references, but in conclusion turns to Locke, in what others have cited as a shortsighted misreading of his work.
But is there something in Locke to support French’s view? At first glance, Locke may suggest even stronger gun rights support when he speaks of man as the “executioner of the Law of Nature,” which means to say we have an innate grasp of morality (the Law of Nature) and drive to carry it out. We are inspired to repay offenses with like or equivalent punishment; we have an intuitive grasp of “just reparations.” Thus far, Locke seems a likely sponsor of Stand Your Ground: it sanctions our acting on our innate moral drive, to see justice done — to right offenses and defend ourselves.
Because of our instinct to see justice done, and our grasp of what justice entails, our state of nature is not a Hobbesian “war of each on each.” And yet, Locke says we must depart nature where each is empowered to execute the Law of Nature because “it’s unreasonable for Men to be Judges in their own cases” since “self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends” and “Ill Nature, Passion, Revenge will carry them too far in punishing others.”
Our innate drive for justice may well lead us astray — and be foiled. When we fail to grasp all the facts of a situation, such as the real intentions of a perceived attacker (or the state of his “weapon” — popcorn, for example), this may lead us to react with excessive and unjust force. In such cases, I need what Locke calls a Common Judge who might inform me better. An independent, objective Common Judge, to whom I shall defer, is one mark of civil society. Without recourse to a Common Judge, violent reprisals spawn violent reprisals in turn, which are each seemingly just, and a cycle of violence — a state of war — is born. Civil society, and its institution of a Common Judge who takes over executing the law of nature, relieves us of the “Inconveniences of the State of Nature,” Locke argues — which can be dire indeed.
Proponents and defenders of Stand Your Ground effectively wish to return us to a State of Nature and its attendant “Inconveniences” — and dangers. LaPierre urges individuals to presume the worst about supposed assailants — damn the consequences. As Locke has it, however, civil society is characterized by a departure from such presumption. When individuals feel such strong passions — anger, fear, hatred — and are liable to act irrationally and regrettably, that is precisely when they must be prevented, as far as possible, from wielding definitive force. And they must be thus prevented in order to honor and promote the instinct for justice surging through us. This is the critical role that civil society plays; for Locke, it perfects nature.
Gun rights advocates argue that we must arm more people, and empower them to wield their guns confidently and boldly if we would achieve greater law and order. They have it wrong. More guns, and more emboldened gun owners, lead to more travesties of justice, more chaos, vendettas, a state of war, Locke would say. Ironically, this also defeats the other cause célèbre of the gun rights movement: autonomy. For gun rights advocates, the gun is the premier mark of individual sovereignty. I believe this is what makes the gun rights movement especially intoxicating for millions of Americans, and resistant to reform and regulation. However, autonomy is doomed in a Stand Your Ground world. It makes no sense to speak of autonomy, freedom, or self-determination in a state of war. As Locke knew too well, the sovereignty of the individual is intolerably tenuous where all are sovereign. Of course, this suits the N.R.A. just fine, and the industry whose interests it represents. Ω
[Firmin DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, is the author of Spinoza and the Stoics and a forthcoming book critiquing the gun rights movement. DeBrabander received a B.A.(Philosophy, magna cum laude) from Boston College, an M.A. (Philosophy) from the University of Louvain (Belgium), and a Ph.D. (Philosophy) from Emory University.]
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