A toxic culture enabled the recent shootings of innocent young people
Three recent shootings have reminded Americans once again that a wrong turn can have deadly consequences in a country that values an individual’s right to bear arms and self-defense over human life and common sense. Earlier this month, in Kansas City, 84-year-old Andrew D. Lester shot and severely wounded Ralph Yarl, a Black teen who rang the wrong doorbell when trying to pick up his brothers. Two days later, in Hebron, N.Y., 65-year-old Kevin Monahan shot and killed a young White woman named Kaylin Gillis when she and her friends mistakenly drove up the driveway of Monahan’s house. And then, in Texas, Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr. shot two high school cheerleaders after one of them mistakenly got into Rodriguez’s car in a parking lot.
Lester justified his violent response by saying that he was “scared to death” of Yarl’s size. Meanwhile, Monahan’s lawyer claimed that multiple cars were speeding up his client’s driveway and “certainly caused some level of alarm to an elderly gentleman who had an elderly wife.”
The tragic outcome of all three cases — despite wildly disparate circumstances — exposes a major, long-standing societal flaw: Between the Civil War and the middle of the 20th century, a unique culture coalesced in which armed self-defense of oneself, one’s family and one’s property became almost a moral imperative. Legislators soon changed the law to bless the exercise of this responsibility. While initially applying only to property-owning White men, over time this ideology has transcended race, establishing instances of armed self-defense as an opportunity to perform a civic duty accessible to all men. Too often, however, this combination of culture and law has stoked aggression and the preventable loss of lives.
Originally, the bar for Americans to claim self-defense when shooting someone was high. English common law dictated that citizens had to “retreat to the wall behind their back” before meeting force with force. The only exception, beginning in the early 1600s, was the “castle doctrine,” which allowed a man to defend himself when his home was invaded.
Early American law adopted this basic framework — but before the Civil War, it extended this limited right to armed self-defense only to property-owning White men because it was intricately bound up with the idea of good citizenship and patriotism. Enslaved people weren’t allowed to bear arms or “stand their ground.” And White women were themselves considered property in need of protection by their husbands.
After the Civil War, however, American culture began to change. Western states were at the forefront of a rethinking of armed self-defense, influenced by the frontier, the ongoing conquest of Native American territories and a hostility to new migrants. These factors on top of the “anxieties around white masculine vulnerability” spurred by the newfound citizenship and enfranchisement of formerly enslaved men, in the words of historian Caroline Light, led to the rejection of the long-standing English common law principles governing armed self-defense. Instead, these states expanded where people had “no duty to retreat” beyond White men’s homes.
Two landmark cases upheld the right to self-defense outside of the home when someone felt threatened. In 1876, in Erwin v. State, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that “a true man, who is without fault, is not obliged to fly from an assailant” when faced with bodily harm. A year later, in Runyan v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court declared that “the tendency of the American mind seems to be very strongly against the enforcement of any rule which requires a person to flee when assailed.”
These verdicts reflected the sense that retreat was considered unmanly, un-American and, in the West especially, incompatible with cultural values. And courts had come to believe, according to historian Richard M. Brown, that man’s nature could not be “superseded by any law.”
In 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced and institutionalized this more capacious version of self-defense in Brown v. United States.
While the broader American culture embraced an expansive right to self-defense, Southern states went even further during the Jim Crow era that lasted from the late 19th century through the 1960s. Fearmongering about the purported aggression of Black men, and the threat they posed to White women, was a common strand of propaganda justifying segregation and racist violence. These tropes emphasized that armed White men had not just a right but a moral obligation as well to protect White women from supposed Black assailants. For White men, this meant that defending their lives, dependents, property and honor became a male virtue.
The end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s did nothing to upend this culture. In fact, it spread far beyond the South as crime became a potent political issue. A newly radicalized National Rifle Association capitalized on anxieties about public safety to push the right of armed self-defense as the only way to ensure individual security in an increasingly dangerous world.
Over the ensuing decades, as deindustrialization led to economic crises in broad swaths of the country, social tensions mounted and police protection seemed inadequate, gun ownership for self-defense appealed to an increasing number of American men who saw it as a chance to perform their civic duty in times of decline. The cultural attractiveness of these ideas also led to an explosion in NRA membership, and the rise of even more extreme gun-rights organizations.
Their growing membership and the changing cultural imperatives led to increasing political clout for gun-rights groups. Beginning in 2005, the NRA turned that clout toward lobbying for passage of “stand your ground” laws, which granted immunity to those who used lethal violence for self-defense as well as expanded the castle doctrine into public space. Their successful campaign has led 27 states to implement such laws.
These laws require only that the shooter confronts the presence of what “the average person” would perceive as a reasonable threat. Since the fear of “the average person” derives from the dominant culture, these laws are intrinsically biased, giving White men something that Light has called a “selective right to kill.” Theoretically, these laws apply equally regardless of the race or gender of the shooter. But in practice, there is a racial disparity in determining what is considered justifiable homicide.
At the root of the racialized nature of this right are fears and stereotypes of young Black men, perhaps best exemplified by the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 at the hands of an armed Latino man who initiated a confrontation and then cited Florida’s “stand your ground” law to justify shooting and killing Martin. That element seems to have played into the shooting of Yarl as well. “There was a clear racial component in this case,” declared prosecuting attorney Zachary Thompson. Authorities are now also investigating whether the case was a hate crime.
But as the other shootings over the past week reveal, the problem goes beyond racist fears of young Black men. Instead, these shootings stem from a culture that sees property-owning men as having a right, or even a moral responsibility, to protect themselves, their homes, their neighborhoods, those around them — and even their cars — with guns. That has spawned a legal regime that lets them shoot first and ask questions later.
The result has been tragic shootings and deaths when the perpetrator faced no danger whatsoever. None of the victims in the three recent cases posed any threat to the shooters. All were cases of totally innocent mistakes by unarmed Americans going about their business. They reflect the toxicity of the American ideology of armed self-defense.
This article was first published in Washington Post and is reposted here with the permission of the author and the copyright holder: https://www.washingtonpost.com/made-by-history/2023/04/24/yarl-gillis-shooting-white-men/.