Race And The Controversial History Of 'Stand Your Ground' Laws
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When some Americans kill because they feared for their safety, they often cite stand-your-ground laws as a defense. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team spoke with the author of a book, "Stand Your Ground: A History Of America's Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense."
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Castle doctrine, part of English common law, maintained that a person could defend his life with lethal force if necessary when an intruder entered his home. Harvard historian Caroline Light says the American adaptation of castle doctrine has remained pretty much the same over the years.
CAROLINE LIGHT: In the United States, we've really always had a very selective set of principles around lethal self-defense.
BATES: From the country's earliest beginnings, Light says, the right to kill a dangerous intruder or enemy was reserved for white, property-owning males. Settlers could kill native people who objected to the appropriation of their lands, but that law was one-sided.
LIGHT: Native Americans who wanted to defend their homes from colonization had no legal grounds to stand on...
BATES: ...Nor did slaves or freedmen. During and well after the Civil War, stand-your-ground was used to protect white men's homes and possessions, including wives and daughters. Many former Confederate states did not allow blacks to own guns for decades. Many black households kept them quietly, though, for hunting and for protection from local law officials who could or would not protect them from white vigilantes. In places where guns were legal, some blacks decided eventually to test the system. In Oakland, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense monitored the police while armed. They openly carried guns into California's state capitol building in 1967, citing the law that allowed it. Here's party chairman Huey P. Newton at a press conference.
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HUEY P NEWTON: California Penal Code, Section 12020 through 12027, and also the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the citizen a right to bear arms on public property.
BATES: Within months the California legislature passed an act that made it harder for many blacks to own guns. It was introduced by Representative Don Mulford.
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DON MULFORD: When bands of armed people with loaded weapons can move about our streets, intimidating and frightening citizens, then I think we should act, and we intend to act.
BATES: Philadelphia activist Maj Toure founded Black Guns Matter as a way to teach African-Americans in urban areas gun safety and use.
MAJ TOURE: I'm not going to be anybody's hashtag. I'm going to exercise my human right to defend myself, you know, and I'm not going to be, you know, a victim to somebody that doesn't want to respect my human rights.
BATES: According to a 2014 Pew Research study, the number of African-Americans who believe gun ownership does more to protect people than endanger them nearly doubled in two years. Maj Toure says that reflects what he's seeing now.
TOURE: I've heard some people say that, oh, it's because more Trump people are, you know, becoming more adamant, but in my experiences in interacting with people across the country, it's because they just want to - you know, it's not a taboo.
BATES: Today, the National Rifle Association seeks to convince potential members that their guns remain as necessary as they were during frontier days. And it's broadened its outreach to ethnic communities. Spokesman Colion Noir addressed black audiences on NRATV.
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COLION NOIR: The vast majority of African-Americans are good, law-abiding and many of them own guns, yet the media that tell me that the majority of black people are anti-gun.
BATES: Philip Smith, the president of the National African-American Gun Association, says he began shooting guns when he moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to the South. Crime and the rash of police shootings of unarmed black men made Smith a determined Second Amendment advocate.
PHILIP SMITH: We don't want to bother anyone, but we're not going to let anyone come and break into our house at 2 in the morning, when you're going to sit there and wait for the police to come and get killed in the interim. We're going to protect ourselves.
BATES: But it's tricky. If you're black, does carrying a licensed gun make you safer? Maj Toure and Phil Smith say certainly. "Stand Your Ground" author Caroline Light isn't as sure.
LIGHT: When you look at what really happens out in the world and the way that especially African-American men are treated when they're armed, already the deck is stacked against people who are judged to be or perceived to be a threat, as are people of color, particularly men of color, in the United States.
BATES: Standing their ground, for some people, may save them from one threat, even as it exposes them to another.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.