Duty to Retreat
In contrast to the Wild West, crowded East Coast cities discouraged the possession and use of weapons in self-defense, especially among the often-immigrant proletariat. In the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, set in 1910’s New York, a father who shoots a child predator is congratulated by his neighbors and the responding police officer, but was ultimately fined for having an unregistered handgun.
The Baltimore Catechism notably favored state power in the form of just war and capital punishment, over the individual action of self-defense. This statist logic was followed by Congress through the 1990’s, when a decade-long Assault Weapon ban and effective death penalty statues were both put into law to combat crime. On taking a life in self-defense, the Baltimore Catechism (1891) stated: “When we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives”.
In the midst of late-1960’s protests, Law-and-Order politicians told anxious voters that “your home is your castle”. Rising crime rates, overtaxed police, and inner-city blight made it more plausible than ever that citizens would need to exercise lethal force to protect their homes and businesses.
Bernie Goetz had had enough in 1984 when he was robbed in a New York City subway car. He fired off his handgun, injuring the four muggers. A New York jury affirmed Bernie Goetz’s right to self-defense, and he was only charged with illegal handgun possession. He earned the title of “Subway Vigilante”. Gary Fadden of Virginia, meanwhile, had the run-through by a prosecutor. Chased down on the country road by two armed drunks, he keyed into his workplace for refuge. Instead, the armed drunks had barged through the gate, and Fadden was forced to take a last stand. As part of his job with the firearm manufacturer, he had a machine gun in his possession, and fired it. “F--- you and your high-powered weapon”, one assailant shouted. Empty bullet casings were found near the assailant’s seat. Fadden was cornered in his workplace. Even so, the prosecutor chose to take Gary Fadden to court. The jury sided with Fadden; this was a clear-cut case of self-defense. While vindicated, Fadden was left with over $30,000 in court costs and legal fees; and ultimately lost his job.
On the eve of passing its stand-your-ground law, Georgia had to reckon with a ghost in its closet. Lena Baker, a Black woman, was sent to the electric chair in 1945 for using deadly force against a White attacker, who happened to be her employer as a maid. She was posthumously pardoned in 2005, and Georgia’s stand-your-ground law took effect in 2006. Then as now, the benefits of stand-your-ground laws are seen as subject to the whims and prejudices of the jury.
What was Kyle Rittenhouse thinking?
Kyle Rittenhouse, age 17, the alleged shooter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was neither owner, employee, neighbor, nor a duly registered security guard protecting an auto dealership across state lines from his Illinois home. Teen access to firearms has been a contentious issue this past decade. Most recently, the Virginia legislature affirmed the right of a 14-year old to use a firearm in home defense. (The premise of the new law is that firearms must now be secured from children under 14).
Most likely, Rittenhouse was a teenager caught in the tenor of the times. In 1976, 17-year old Joseph Rakes jabbed a man with the American flag in protest of Boston school integration. He was later convicted of assault. Rittenhouse, of course, carried a deadly weapon. A Wisconsin jury will decide if the state should lock him up and throw away the key.