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How Come Americans Stand Their Ground?

On August 9, 2014 an eighteen-year old Black youth named Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. The town of some 20,000 residents, is a largely African American community located five miles north of downtown St. Louis.

The shooting unleashed nearly two weeks of angry, violent demonstrations and rioting during which time Ferguson became a battleground between two populations: the many Black residents of the town and nearby towns who staged daily and nightly marches protesting the behavior of the cops, versus armed members of so-called ‘militias’ who showed up to help the cops ‘keep the peace.’

Six years from the date of Brown’s death, a couple stood on the front porch of their St. Louis home, brandishing an assault rifle and a pistol at a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators who were marching to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, demonstrations which occurred in many American cities over those several months.

In the Michael Brown incident, three separate investigations by the town, the state and the feds could not find any fault with the behavior of the cop who shot and killed Brown. It was determined ultimately that Brown responded to an order from the cop to stop walking down the middle of the street by charging the officer in his car and attempting to grab his gun.

In the St. Louis incident, on the other hand, the AR-wielding attorney and his pistol-packing wife were indicted and convicted for unlawful use of a weapon, but their convictions were thrown out by a Republican Governor who was trying to score some points in a political year. Meanwhile, the attorney, Mark McCloskey and his wife, were invited to speak at the GOP National Convention and were also lionized by the NRA.

So, here we have two examples of a unique, American behavior known as ‘stand your ground,’ (SYG) about which I have decided to write a book. And the reason I am writing this book is because the issue of SYG really sums up everything which creates the narrative about gun violence on both sides of the gun debate.

This debate, which has been going on for nearly 30 years, consists of two diametrically opposed points of view about the presence and use of guns in American life. On the one hand, we have what I am going to refer to as the ‘positive social utility’ argument about guns, which basically says that a gun in the hands of a law-abiding individual represents a proper and effective way to keep the community safe. On the other hand, we have what I am going to refer to as the ‘negative social utility’ argument about guns, which basically says that a gun in the hands of anyone, law-abiding or not, increases the odds that a serious injury leading up to death will take place.

Both of these narratives are backed up by what is referred to as ‘evidence-based’ research. The research which first defined the positive social utility argument was published by the criminologist Gary Kleck in 1995, and has been the subject of endless positive and negative responses ever since. The research which first defined the negative social utility argument was published by two medical researchers, Art Kellerman and Fred Rivara in 1992 and 1993, and has also generated scores of commentaries on both sides.

Unfortunately, because the debate focuses primarily on the issue of guns, the more fundamental question of behavior is largely ignored. But what the research of criminologist Marvin Wolfgang in the 1970’s and the authoritative textbook treatment of homicide by coroner Lester Adelson tells us is that guns just make it easier for either or both combatants in a dispute to avoid backing down. And the United States happens to be the only country which not only has an SYG behavior running through its culture, but sanctions SYG through its legal system as well.

There are now 40 states which either have enacted SYG provisions in their criminal codes, or support SYG defenses in court cases brought against individuals accused of threats or assaults. The appearance of SYG in American jurisprudence first during the colonial period is skillfully discussed by Caroline Light (Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense) but her work does not convey the degree to which SYG now permeates American society writ large.

After all, if you watch the videos of those jerks who stormed up and into the Capitol on January 6th, and if you listen to the speeches by Trump and his pack of fools on the Ellipse earlier that day, you’ll hear endless invocations to the idea of not backing down. Wasn’t SYG the basic message which defined ‘stop the steal?’ Of course it was.

So, I am going to write a book about how and why this country is enamored of SYG behavior which permeates every facet of the culture, from political campaigns to hip-hop and beyond. Because until we understand this remarkably unique type of American behavior, America’s vibrant entrepreneurial community will figure out some way to take this culture and use it to make a buck, whether the bucks come from selling guns or selling something else.

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