Chance-medley, martial arts, and self defense: Why “stand your ground” laws are hazardous to our health

Fistfight, circa 1700

Chance-medley: An avoidable fight

Kind of a long post here. I’ve been thinking about these things a lot in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.

Back in March 2012, Garrett Epps wrote an illuminating piece on “Stand Your Ground” laws for The American Prospect, locating their roots in the traditional “castle doctrine,” which allowed people to use deadly force when attacked in their homes. Epps also explains how state legislatures in America have distorted the castle doctrine into a mechanism that privileges violence as a response to any conflict: Modern “stand your ground” laws conflate life-threatening, unprovoked assault (being attacked by a home invader, for example) with the far more common sorts of conflict people engage in. These more common conflicts were called, in old legal terms, “chance-medley.” Chance-medley occurred

when two people got into an avoidable quarrel—in a pub, say—that graduated to violence. These quarrels could easily escalate. If one party to a chance-medley attacked the other, the person attacked might end up with the choice of killing or being killed. When the party attacked killed the attacker, he or she might claim self-defense—but only when the evidence showed that the eventual killer had tried to break off the encounter, or “retreat.” Even then, the killer was not justified but merely “excused.”

That obligation to retreat if at all possible, in order to avoid taking another’s life, is critical. It demonstrates a basic awareness of the social contract that even medieval Europeans appreciated. And this obligation ought to be familiar to martial artists, because it was drilled into us by our teachers: A martial artist is humble. A martial artist controls her power. A martial artist only fights when absolutely necessary.

We weren’t taught these precepts solely because our instructors were worried about liability. They reflect thousands of years’ experience with the use and abuse of violence. They are an acknowledgement that if we cannot subdue our own egos, we damage not just our opponents and ourselves, but the very fabric of society.

OK, so I find stand your ground laws repugnant because of my martial arts training. You might think that, as a self defense advocate, I see some value in them. After all, they give me the right to use as much force as I deem necessary, up to and including lethal force, if I’m attacked. That means I don’t have to worry about hurting my attacker “too much.” I’ve gone on the record with my doubts about the “ethic of least harm” for women’s self defense. The idea that we have an obligation to do as little harm as possible to our attackers is appealing in theory, but not always practical. And this approach can do more harm than good if it makes women less likely to resist an assailant, for fear they’ll be punished for fighting back “too hard.”

The problem is that stand your ground laws aren’t really designed to protect women who hit an attacker’s windpipe so hard that he suffocates, or women whose attackers fracture their skulls on the sidewalk when they are knocked down. Instead, they provide justification for people in chance-medley conflicts–avoidable fights–to use deadly force. Florida’s statute (which was written by the NRA and ALEC) legalizes deadly force if someone “reasonably believes it is necessary . . . to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself,” and explicitly states that the person using force “has no duty to retreat.”

We’ve now seen how that plays out. An adult with a gun and a vision of himself as a lone enforcer of justice can follow, accost, and shoot an unarmed teenager, and walk free. A man can confront someone who owes him money, escalate the argument to a physical fight, retreat to his vehicle to obtain a gun, start a four-person gunfight in the middle of the street, finally shooting his debtor dead, and be immune from legal sanction–either criminal or civil.

This would be a bad thing even if stand your ground statutes were applied impartially–which they aren’t–and even if our justice system wasn’t permeated from top to bottom with racism and sexism. Stand your ground laws mean we can start and escalate fights with impunity. We can create as many victims as we like, in the name of defending ourselves. They give those who already favor violence as a solution to life’s problems an advantage over people with self restraint; they make responding with anything other than lethal force pointless. After all, if someone accosts me and I hit him in self defense, what’s to stop him from shooting me, claiming he “feared great bodily harm”? (Trust me, I can hit someone hard enough to cause great bodily harm.)

The logic is pretty stark: If I’m scared enough to hit someone, then I might as well just go ahead and shoot him instead, before he can shoot me. The law says I’m justified either way, so why take the chance?

And thus all my years of training, of learning to assess a dangerous situation and respond wisely, of nurturing compassion for myself and others even in the face of violence, of teaching women that they are worth defending because all humans have worth–all of that goes right down the toilet. Under today’s stand your ground laws, those values are deemed less important than any random asshole’s desire to pick a fight and play cowboy.

And that’s the ground we now stand on: Barren and blood-soaked. As any martial artist can tell you, unrestrained ego and pride leave you with nothing to be proud of, and little that’s worth defending.