Want to play cop? Pick up a gun, and go off to fight crime — or at least what you imagine to be crime? Well, you might end up like Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who killed two protestors in a confrontation that he himself instigated in Kenosha, Wis., got acquitted last week, and is well on his way to becoming a right-wing folk hero.
But be careful — you might also end up like Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan, the men convicted in a courtroom in Georgia on Wednesday of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. They claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest of Arbery, a Black jogger they believed had broken into a construction site.
Many of the details of the Georgia and Wisconsin cases differed, but they had one key feature in common: In both cases, people who had no business acting as law enforcement created a dangerous situation that turned fatal. In both cases, the defendants went on to claim self-defense, saying they feared for their lives in a confrontation they themselves had created.
Would-be vigilantes got quite the mixed message. But there should be no ambiguity about it: This isn’t the Wild West, and no American should have a presumptive right to take the law into their own hands. Doing so is dangerous, destructive to civil rights, and ultimately dangerous for the vigilantes themselves. Verdicts like the convictions in Georgia help send that message and deter future vigilantism. And lawmakers and state officials can reinforce it by clarifying legal standards around self-defense to make clear that self-appointed vigilantes can’t successfully invoke self-defense as a shield when their own decisions lead to tragedy. That Georgia overhauled its citizen’s arrest law following Arbery’s murder is a promising start.
In both the recent cases of vigilantism, the defendants argued that their shootings were justified because they feared for their lives. In both cases, an ostensible lethal threat came from their own weapon, which they said they feared would be turned against them. The circuitous logic is galling: to the extent that Travis McMichael, the Georgia shooter who fired the shots that killed Arbery, may have had any legitimate fear in the confrontation with Arbery that he chose to create, it was because of a weapon he chose to brandish. It’s an abuse of the idea of self-defense for states to accept that kind of circular logic. Unless we really want anarchy, courts can’t accept the notion that carrying a gun is an excuse for using it.
Equally, though, Americans need to attack vigilantism at its root: a gun culture and gun industry that has promoted the idea that “good guys with guns” are what the country needs. People like Rittenhouse didn’t get the bright idea to strap on an AR-15 in a vacuum; there’s a line from the years of gun-glorifying National Rifle Association propaganda about the need for more firearms to the killings in Wisconsin and Georgia. Nor is the racial aspect of both incidents any surprise; racism and the gun culture are joined at the hip, and part of the NRA’s strategy to promote guns has been inciting fear of racial justice protests.
Indeed, America is now living out the real-life version of Chekhov’s gun — the concept that there’s no reason to have a gun in a work of fiction if it’s not going to be used. The fiction marketed by the gun industry is that the country is awash in crime against which white Americans need to guard themselves. Inevitably, though, some of those guns are going to be used. Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber in Wisconsin, have paid the price — and more Americans will continue to die until politicians summon the bravery to confront both vigilantism and the gun culture that foments it.
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