Dear New York Times, Self-Defense Is Not Vigilantism

by David French

Over at the New York Times ”Opinionator” blog, Firmin DeBrander, an associate professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, takes issue with a post I wrote last year outlining the biblical and natural-law right of self-defense. My argument was rather simple: From the Noahic Covenant to the New Testament, there were ample biblical examples of self-defense being not only permitted but in some cases actually mandated. I also – borrowing from Jim Lindgren’s excellent work at the Volokh Conspiracy — quoted John Locke for the proposition that the right of self defense wasn’t just a biblical right but a right located in natural law.

This is a critical conversation. If the right of self-defense predates and supersedes the state itself, then the circumstances where the state can abrogate that right are limited indeed. In fact, the right of self-defense includes a right of self-defense against the state itself, when the state attempts to harm its citizens.

But rather than deal with this rather basic concept, the Left often changes the subject — from true self-defense to what is better-described as vigilantism. By redefining self-defense as vigilantism, the Left hijacks Locke. Here’s DeBrander:

But is there something in Locke to support French’s view? At first glance, Locke may suggest even stronger gun rights support when he speaks of man as the “executioner of the Law of Nature,” which means to say we have an innate grasp of morality (the Law of Nature) and drive to carry it out. We are inspired to repay offenses with like or equivalent punishment; we have an intuitive grasp of “just reparations.” Thus far, Locke seems a likely sponsor of Stand Your Ground: it sanctions our acting on our innate moral drive, to see justice done — to right offenses and defend ourselves.

Because of our instinct to see justice done, and our grasp of what justice entails, our state of nature is not a Hobbesian “war of each on each.” And yet, Locke says we must depart nature where each is empowered to execute the Law of Nature because “it’s unreasonable for Men to be Judges in their own cases” since “self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends” and “Ill Nature, Passion, Revenge will carry them too far in punishing others.”

He continues:

Our innate drive for justice may well lead us astray — and be foiled. When we fail to grasp all the facts of a situation, such as the real intentions of a perceived attacker (or the state of his “weapon” — popcorn, for example), this may lead us to react with excessive and unjust force. In such cases, I need what Locke calls a Common Judge who might inform me better. An independent, objective Common Judge, to whom I shall defer, is one mark of civil society. Without recourse to a Common Judge, violent reprisals spawn violent reprisals in turn, which are each seemingly just, and a cycle of violence — a state of war — is born. Civil society, and its institution of a Common Judge who takes over executing the law of nature, relieves us of the “Inconveniences of the State of Nature,” Locke argues — which can be dire indeed.

But this misses the point completely. Self-defense applies when the “Common Judge” is utterly and completely unavailable to “grasp all of the facts of the situation.” Then, the individual must discern and act without the benefit of the protection of the state and thus is directly and immediately within the context of the Law of Nature. Then, after the act of self-defense, the “Common Judge” dispenses justice — exonerating those who act in self-defense and convicting (as Michael Dunn was convicted) those who exceed its bounds.

Of course citizens who are under the rule of law are not “Judges in their own case,” but that is an admonition against vigilantism, against the idea — for example — that a person robbed goes to collect from the perceived robber, not that a person being robbed can’t resist the robbery itself.

“Stand your ground” is not a principle that endorses vigilantism, the quest to enforce the law unilaterally, but instead a principle that declares that public spaces do not belong to violent aggressors. This represents not the abrogation of law but rather the use of law to more justly determine the rights of aggressor and victim, granting greater rights to the victim and thus bringing the statutory law closer in line with natural law. When the state, by contrast, mandates that citizens retreat from aggression (a concept fraught with practical difficulties and dangers), then it does not limit violence, it instead empowers unlawful aggression.

The Left often responds to these principles with anecdotes, like the Trayvon Martin case, Michael Dunn, or the “popcorn killer,” Curtis Reeves, but in each of these cases the state prosecuted, failing to convict Zimmerman in a case that basically defined the term “reasonable doubt,” convicting Dunn (with a hung jury on one over-charged count), and so far holding Reeves without bail since his shooting. Is this really the “Law of Nature” or is it the work of the “Common Judge” determining whether the claim of self-defense was just?

Curiously, this reliance on anecdotes always fails to include stories like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one (the list can go on and on) — each a case where a duty to retreat would have led to additional, horrifying loss of life. If the Left questions the right of self-defense surely it must also question a church security guard who stops a mass shooting or a school vice-principal who does the same?

The Left has to change the subject to vigilantism because the case for self-defense is so manifestly obvious. Is the state respecting the fundamental rights of citizens — including their right to life — if it mandates passivity in the face of violent attack? Of course not. It does, however, respect the right to life when it empowers self-defense while also prosecuting those rare few who seek to mask murderous intent behind a self-defense pretext. 

Protecting the right of self-defense is just. Mandatory disarmament is not.