Shoot first, ask questions later: The destructive downside to America's cult of DIY personal security

In spite of falling crime rates, more people are acquiring guns for personal and home protection than ever before

Published February 12, 2017 6:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Jewel Samad)
(Getty/Jewel Samad)

I have vivid memories of accompanying my parents on trips to a shooting range in southwestern Virginia. They shot skeet, in which a small, saucer-shaped clay pigeon was launched from a machine across the sky, in front of the shooter, and the more challenging trap, where the target flew up and away from the shooter. I’d interrupt my play in the field behind the range when I heard my mother shout “Pull!” and would look up. The clay pigeon would soar across the sky, then shatter into tiny bits as the pellets from Mom’s gun tore through it. She was an excellent shot, particularly for someone with scant time to spend on target practice. She had three children, me and two younger siblings, and back in the early 1980s, shooting facilities and gun clubs didn’t provide childcare, as some do now.

Both of my parents shot for recreation. My dad, who had become familiar with guns through his service in the navy, occasionally went on hunting expeditions with friends from work, bringing back an assortment of small dead animals. At dinner after one such excursion, I recall chewing on a less-than-delectable piece of roasted quail, trying not to think about the lovely and harmless creature it had come from and pausing to spit out pieces of birdshot. Despite the occasional family dinner featuring the kill of the day, guns and hunting constituted a peripheral part of my life.

I grew up white and middle-class in the suburban South, which is to say that I grew up with a measure of security in both my social position and my sense of distance from physical danger. As a historian who studies the ways in which collectively shared memories—the histories that take shape as truth in the public imagination—influence national belonging, I look back on memories like these for a sense of what I don’t remember. Specifically, I seek out gaps in my recollection that highlight crucial departures from today’s sense of urgency around home and personal security. My early trips to the shooting range felt mundane, even boring, comparable to watching my parents play tennis. But unlike tennis rackets, guns weren’t kept in our home. My parents weren’t interested in armed self-defense.

In contrast to my memories of my parents’ trips to the gun range, today’s widespread reverence for what I call “do-it-yourself (DIY)-security citizenship” brings to mind a different world. DIY-security citizenship is based on a set of ideologies, rooted in heroic histories, that see lethal self-defense as a core responsibility of the ideal citizen who stands his ground in the face of perceived threat rather than retreating from a fight. This contemporary ideal emerged in response to a growing sense of insecurity, a belief that we must be prepared to kill or be killed, to shoot first and ask questions later. It rests on an urgent need to defend oneself from a litany of threatening figures, including (but not limited to) terrorists, undocumented immigrants, and criminal strangers. In fact, the DIY security citizen has appeared primarily in opposition to these perceived threats, and leaves no room for ambiguity between heroic good guys and dangerous bad guys.

In spite of the invocation of heroism and independence, the DIY-security ethos has a destructive downside. For one, it rests on the fallacy of urgent insecurity. In spite of falling crime rates, more people are acquiring guns for personal and home protection than ever before. When I was growing up, most gun owners were hunters; now, most own guns for personal protection. Americans account for less than 5 percent of the world’s population but possess 40 to 50 percent of its guns. Recent studies have estimated that there are now more guns than people in the United States, far more weaponry than in any other comparably developed nation. The political scientist Robert Spitzer recently characterized the nation’s “contemporary gun culture, and prevailing gun narrative” as having “run amok.”

Our nation boasts the highest per capita rate of gun deaths and deaths by mass shooting, defined as an episode in which four or more people are killed or wounded. In 2015 alone there were 372 mass shootings, resulting in 475 deaths. White men are disproportionately the shooters in these and other episodes of mass gun violence. The proliferation of shootings, particularly in our schools, amplifies a national sense of vulnerability, so that citizens who see themselves as law-abiding nevertheless feel the need to take matters into their own hands.

But DIY-security citizenship is not just about gun ownership. Guns and their proliferation in the United States are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger and more widespread belief system that frames lethal self-defense as a core ideal of good citizenship. This principle places idealized, “law-abiding citizens” — not all citizens — in the service of lethal self-defense and equates good citizenship with the capacity to stand one’s ground against criminal strangers. According to the National Rifle Association, a good citizen is an armed citizen. In fact, the NRA has gone so far as to register the phrase “armed citizen” and build a political advertising campaign around it. For the NRA, an Armed Citizen is the quintessential emblem of patriotism. This ideal suggests that we must all be prepared to defend ourselves; however, our contemporary call to arms is based on unspoken but powerful assumptions that exclude many from the protective and exonerating rhetoric of “law-abiding” citizenship.

Appeals to individual DIY security as the solution to our nation’s most urgent anxieties criminalizes many who do not fit the terms of idealized citizenship, particularly people of color, gender-nonconforming people, and the poor. Moreover, women of all races, classes, and ethnicities often find themselves criminalized if they try to stand their ground against violent male partners. When contemporary advocates of lethal self-defense entreat law-abiding citizens to take up arms against criminal strangers, they participate in a prolonged tradition of excluding and criminalizing the real victims of violence, the groups historically most in need of protection.

This appeal to DIY-security citizenship is in many ways nothing new. The heroic figure of the Armed Citizen has its roots in a long history in which the privilege of violence, often justified as self-defense, has rested in the hands of the powerful few. While our legal terrain has shifted to extend the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship to women and to people of color, the advantage of self-defensive violence continues to empower propertied white men. Ultimately, today’s vocal call to arms rests on historic fallacies of reverse victimization, where those excluded from the full benefits of citizenship became the criminalized strangers against whom the Armed Citizen takes defensive action. In spite of its democratic appeals to all law-abiding citizens, DIY-security citizenship only welcomes some, to the exclusion — and endangerment — of the many.

The material traces of these histories are all around us, but we often don’t notice them unless we are subject to their exclusions. Growing up white and middle-class in the South meant that I inherited a complicated but widely celebrated heritage, one concretized in memorials that dotted the Southern landscape. A certain comforting worldview was reflected in the built environment. I grew up blithely unthreatened by historical symbols of domination, like the Confederate flag emblazoned on the backs of pick-up trucks and in store windows. To a white girl born in Virginia, these everyday sights appeared like natural, commonsense reminders of a glorious past. Almost through osmosis, I learned to see the flag’s presence as a benign symbol of a proud legacy, a politically neutral reminder of a true history. Given its reliable and almost ubiquitous presence, I failed, until adulthood and advanced education intervened, to develop a critical awareness of the larger significance of this and other emblems of white supremacy, ones that have shaped the way we understand history itself.

The collective memories conjured by the Confederate flag and other historical symbols never circulate in an ideological vacuum. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz contends that our nation and its laws were built upon a regime of white supremacist settler colonialism “require[ing] violence or the threat of violence to obtain its goals.”  The violence was necessary to maintain structures of racial and gender inequality, yet the histories we tell ourselves again and again often downplay or outright conceal our undemocratic past. Widely recognized national symbols — monuments, flags, and even our currency — perpetuate the histories that most comfortably serve existing power structures, and they help mark the boundaries between those entitled to and those excluded from the rights, privileges, and protections of full citizenship.

Although the Confederate flag resonates differently depending on one’s location, the sentimental visions of Southern honor, hospitality, and tragic heroism that it evokes travel far and wide. It communicates a narrative of Southern white persecution while masking the violence of white supremacy, celebrating heroic rebels as armed protectors of Southern culture and as chivalrous defenders of white women’s honor. Appeals to the tragic “Lost Cause,” and a post-Civil War South subjugated by federal Reconstruction obstruct our view of the nation’s ongoing assaults on Black citizenship. The Confederate flag ultimately taps into and reinforces a selectively shared memory of reverse victimization, where armed white men stood up against “negro rule” and corrupt federal intrusions on their rights. These memories celebrate white, male armed citizens as heroes while blinding us to the violence of slavery and its modern progeny.

The symbolic realm has powerful material implications. For those excluded from the safety and privilege of whiteness, the Confederate flag serves as a sinister reminder of the limits of belonging. Its visual shorthand speaks what the literary scholar María Carla Sánchez calls an “unspoken language,” offering the opposite of a hospitable Southern welcome mat to those excluded from our nation’s democratic promises.

The flag’s political and racial implications remain hidden for those not immediately subject to their prohibitions, until someone commits an act of extreme violence in its name. On June 17, 2015, a white man declaring his allegiance to the Confederacy went on a shooting rampage at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine people. Ten days after the massacre, thirty-year-old Brittany “Bree” Newsome, an African American filmmaker and activist, climbed up the flagpole in front of the capitol in Columbia and took down the Confederate flag. Newsome was arrested for defacing state property and taken to jail and the flag was promptly put back up. Following her bold action, and her insistence that “that flag represents fear. . . . It’s a sign of intimidation,” leaders from across the political spectrum rallied in recognition that the symbol’s presence in official spaces threatened the inclusion and safety of people of color. The flag was removed officially on July 10, and the charges against Ms. Newsome, hailed by many as a “Black superhero,” were dismissed.

While we celebrate this victory of popular protest, we must bear in mind that removing this symbol of white supremacy from state buildings is just that: symbolic. The flag may disappear, at least from the state house, but the stubborn prohibitions and historical silences that give it power remain stubbornly in place.

Much has changed in the thirty-plus years since I accompanied my parents to the shooting range. Years ago, finally unfettered by small children, my mother took advantage of an expanding array of resources available to female gun enthusiasts. In 2001 she enrolled in an NRA-sponsored “Women in the Outdoors” program and took several daylong gun safety courses taught by NRA-certified instructors. She learned how to shoot various types of firearms, including .22s, .44s, rifles, and shotguns, while participating in shooting competitions. Although she enjoyed perfecting her skills through target practice, my mother found the NRA-trained instructors’ emphasis on lethal self-defense alienating and wrong-headed. She could not picture herself as the NRA-trademarked Armed Citizen — prepared to take a life in order to save her own — nor was she motivated by the fear and anxiety that compelled many to carry weapons for self-protection.

Today my mother actively opposes the contemporary proliferation of DIY-security citizenship, writing letters to elected officials and to local newspapers urging the vigorous enforcement of gun regulations. In our hometown, hers is a minority voice in a sea of growing opposition to even the most modest gun control efforts. With each mass shooting, the rallying cries for lethal weaponry and an armed citizenry seem to grow louder.  They crowd out voices like my mother’s and mask the evidence that more guns correlate to more gun deaths, and that an armed citizenship amounts to safety for the few at the expense of the many.

As the culture of DIY-security citizenship spreads, mobilizing the past in a contemporary call to arms, it becomes an accepted, established viewpoint and becomes increasingly difficult to challenge. Like the Confederate flag in official public spaces, it signals welcome and confirms belonging for dominant social actors, while reaffirming exclusion and justifying violence toward the dominated. Even though the flag no longer flies near the capitol building in Columbia, we still face a long journey toward recognizing the persistent connection between historical amnesia and contemporary inequality. This book represents one white Southerner’s effort to excavate an uncomfortable past in the name of justice for our future.

Excerpted from "Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense," by Caroline E. Light (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

By Caroline E. Light

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