Professor of law struggles to miss the point on Stand Your Ground

If Patricia J. Williams is to be believed, Stand Your Ground laws are all about white people becoming insecure and shooting blacks.  At least, this is the argument that she makes in an article for The Nation, titled, “The ‘Ground’ in ‘Stand Your Ground’ Means Any Place a White Person Is Nervous.”  In her view:

The history of the right to bear arms is shaped by exclusionary privilege based on race and gender. It is almost exclusively white men who may “reasonably” carry firearms to protests outside Target or political conventions. It is almost exclusively white men who do not need to retreat from domestic disputes while on ground deemed “theirs.” Nonwhites and women, however, are much less likely to be able to walk through the world with assault rifles (or toy guns, or the shadow of anything that might resemble a gun) and not be mowed down for that reason alone—either by police or the idealized citizen-savior.

While she refers to a “citizen-savior” here and asserts later that Stand Your Ground laws, in the words of Harvard professor Caroline Light, promote “lethal response to black intrusions into spaces considered white,” most of her article goes after police action.

And therein lies a major flaw in the argument that Williams is trying to make.  While SYG laws has been used as a defense by a law enforcement officer regarding a shooting, the primary purpose is to protect ordinary people who use lethal force to counter an attack.  The authority of police to use force or otherwise to carry out their duties comes under a different heading.

More than that, the concept of SYG does not include a race clause.  The law as it is written simply says that if you have the right to be in a particular location, you are not obliged to attempt to leave that place before defending yourself.  This does not mean that you get to start a fight, to shoot someone whose music is of the wrong kind, or to be generally a jerk.  It just means that you don’t have to attempt to outrun a bullet, a knife, or a fist.  Your concern for your life or for the life of another innocent person must be reasonable.  And saying, “but the person was black in a public space,” isn’t going to qualify.

Williams mentions, but again misses the point about the racist roots of gun control.  She talks about white mean “reasonably” carrying firearms to a protest or a store, while failing to point out that in the south, carry licenses were may-issue, giving law enforcement the discretion to deny such licenses to minorities.  The same is true about gun laws across the country, including the Mulford Act signed by then Gov. Reagan that so many gun control advocates love to cite.

One of the questions that Williams wants us to consider is whose ground public spaces happen to be.  This is a worthwhile subject for discussion, but the way she goes about it indicates that she’s precluded the concept of self-defense.  Yet her criticism of the police suggests that she isn’t willing to have them defend order and lives, either.  What we’re left with is what we’ve seen in Baltimore and recently in Milwaukee.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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