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Harvard Professor's Book Explores History Of 'Stand Your Ground' Laws

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida was the first state to enact a "stand your ground" law. Under the law, a person is allowed to use lethal force — and has no duty to retreat — if they believe they are in danger.

Since it was enacted in 2005, the law has drawn high-profile controversies, including the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Harvard professor Caroline Light was recently in Miami to talk about the law’s historical roots and her book “Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.”

Below is an excerpt of her conversation with WLRN reporter Nadege Green.

Listen to the interview here.

WLRN: Your book explores the origin of modern day self-defense and "stand your ground" laws. Where did this concept come from in the first place?

LIGHT: I started writing this book because I was mystified by the repeated miscarriages of justice done in the name of defending one's home or one's property or just defending oneself that kept happening, particularly Trayvon Martin's death in 2012, and I was really interested in understanding [the] history.

And the history goes back to the Castle Doctrine. The Castle Doctrine is essentially that adage that every man's home is his castle — except the big difference there is if you defend your castle you're actually in your home, and "stand your ground" laws are about defending yourself with lethal violence wherever you may legally be.

And can you talk a little bit specifically about the Castle Doctrine?

All of our laws here in the United States are based pretty much on English common law doctrine. The king was the only one who could use lethal violence in the protection of citizens. So the Castle Doctrine essentially was an exception. As long as you were in your castle, you were allowed to defend yourself.

And in looking at the history of self-defense laws, it's tied very closely to homeownership, the right to protect your home. But over the course of American history, everyone didn't have the right to own a home or even property. How do today's self-defense laws intersect with that?

What I discovered in my research was the initial castle laws were created in the context of a vastly unequal society where honestly the Castle Doctrine was about white men capable of defending their own homes.

People of color and indigenous people and women were not allowed to defend their castles. I mean, when you look at settler colonialist histories, Native folks couldn't stand their ground, they didn't have access to the castle doctrine. People who were enslaved didn't own property because they were property under United States law. So one thing I discovered is that the Castle Doctrine has always been an exclusionary paradigm in the United States.

There is a growing movement here in Florida to repeal "stand your ground." What happens if it's repealed. Is there a case to keep it?

So those who would argue for keeping it say that we live in a really dangerous world and we need this kind of law because "law-abiding citizens desperately need the capacity to use lethal self-defense to protect themselves and their property."

That's a very seductive promise, and a lot of people believe that these "stand your ground" laws are benign [and] that they protect our right to defend ourselves.

But if you look at the cases over the course of the past decade plus, over and over again when women try to invoke stand your ground to protect themselves and their children from violent spouses or ex-spouses or boyfriends, typically more often than not those women end up going to prison. So the law isn't actually designed to protect the people who need the protection most.

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Nadege Greencovers social justice issues for WLRN.