A Fine Line
In response to my recent post about the fact that no one has a right to be a vigilante, a number of people have argued that I’ve conflated vigilantism and self-defense. The most prominent of these is David French in the National Review:
Of course we give up the right to settle our own grievances, but we don’t give up the right to protect ourselves and our families before the police can arrive. Defending oneself from a home intruder or mugger is not the same thing as exercising a “right to punish criminal behavior.” You are not being punitive; you are being protective.
Thus, most people agree with me that vigilantism isn’t a natural right, but continue to disagree about self-defense. This simply isn’t a distinction that Locke makes in the Second Treatise and to make that distinction today so we can protect a supposed right to self-defense while stopping short of endorsing vigilantism is to misread Locke.
While there might very well be a difference in one’s mind when one prepares to shoot someone to protect oneself rather than to punish the other, the difference is negligible from a Lockean standpoint: Both are examples of people acting as judge, jury, and executioner. The gun owner, rather than a dispassionate third party, is the only person making the determination about life and death for another person.
There might be times when this is an unavoiadable scenario — and so self-defense is preserved as a possible legal defense for homicide — but one of the main reasons human beings chose civil society over the state of nature is to minimize these incidents.
On a less theoretical note, I think it’s important to note that there’s a very fine line between self-defense and vigilantism, as some gun owners today understand themselves to have the legal right to take the law into their own hands whenever they feel themselves to be threatened … whether at home or in public.
The relatively recent proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws — since 2005, about half of the states have passed such laws — has moved our understanding of self-defense from the home, where it was traditionally understood that one could defend oneself, to the public sphere, where one previously had a duty to retreat first and respond with violence second. And it has seemingly increased homicide rates in those states.
Perhaps the best example — and one that I think we’re not talking about nearly enough right now — is that of George Zimmerman and Travyon Martin.