Personal Responsibility and “Stand Your Ground”

Part of the issue of our present gun control politics is that conservatives aren’t just asking for the right to have guns but increasingly the right to use them with less oversight and responsibility. (There are others outside of conservatives who do so too, and I will criticize them as well, but I am seeing this trend by far the most strongly in conservative groups and extreme gun rights activists).

“Stand your ground” laws (and laws like them) are nothing less than the abdication of personal responsibility. They are yet another sign that for many conservatives the idea of “personal responsibility” is more of an excuse to avoid having to deal with savage inequalities than to make a change.

When someone can chase down someone below the age of majority (which in Florida is 18), after having been instructed to not do anything by the police, and shoot someone who is unarmed, and ultimately face no consequences for that behavior, personal responsibility has been obliterated.

It’s one thing to say, “I want to have a gun”. It’s another to say, “I want to have a gun, and I also want to be able to carry it in public, and I want to be able to use it in a way that I feel is defending my property or rights, and I want the law to make it so that it is staggeringly difficult to punish me for that behavior”.

If conservatives actually believe in both gun ownership and in personal responsibility, they should not be advocating laws that lower the threshold for self-defense. They should be making sure that anyone, like George Zimmerman, who uses a gun in a way that responsible adults should not should be punished. Instead, conservatives came out of the woodwork to defend an adult who shot a 17-year old, including outright fabricating many claims about Trayvon Martin and grossly misrepresenting the situation.

Whenever people act in ways that belie their words, it’s always important to ask, “Why?” It is easy to dismiss them as hypocrites or jerks. It’s much harder to engage
with the actual psychology.

Many conservatives are scared of a society that is changing in ways they are not comfortable with and can’t anticipate. Like many people facing such change, they want to cling to the (idealized memory of the) past, and to defend their present.

We can see it everywhere from racist Tea Party signs to “stand your ground” laws. There is real fear motivating this. This fear does come from a very biased, ugly, classist, racist and homophobic place, but it needs to be addressed. It’s not anyone’s fault that they inherited the legacy of institutionalized white supremacy or institutionalized inequality.

We have to teach our neighbors, using good sociology and reasoning, that the biggest threats they face are likely from callous corporations who will poison their air or mangle them at work, or from people within their social network (since most people are victimized by people geographically and socially quite close to them, due to patterns of convenience in criminal behavior).

We have to assuage their fears and find ways of making them feel safer. Including, quite possibly, paying police officers more and increasing their budgets (even as I am worried about doing so based off of my anarchist and anti-racist convictions).

At the very least, we have to act with empathy for their honest concerns, and recognize that perhaps in the dark of the night we are not so different.

Edit: It’s become clear that I have to clarify something which shouldn’t need clarification, which is that I am referring not just to “Stand your ground” per se but to a host of other legal approaches that are reducing the barriers to self-defense (perceived or legitimate) and violence. Something like the Trayvon Martin case should never happen again, yet we are seeing policies being advocated that would guarantee it occurring. And while we can quibble as to which specific laws have led to the problems of the Trayvon Martin case, what’s clear is that Zimmerman felt he was doing nothing wrong.

It’s also become clear that I need to clarify (and this does deserve clarification) that there are non-conservatives who advocate SYG laws and laws like them. I think it’s fairly transparent that such laws lean conservative, but as always there is a continuum of behavior and support. I am replying mostly to the most hardcore who advocate an extreme right of what they view, erroneously, as self-defense.

For additional information on the problems with SYG laws, even ones not as poorly written as Florida’s, http://www.timwise.org/2013/07/clip-4-tim-wise-on-msnbc-with-melissa-harris-perry-the-racial-implications-of-stand-your-ground-laws-72013/ is a good place to begin. I also suggest this article which indicates the cost to African-American communities as well as indicates that it’s not just Florida’s SYG law that is the problem.


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