Dr. Caroline Light Presents “Whose Castle: The Weaponization of Self-Defense”

Victoria Ware, Reporter

The disparities in self-defense laws will be the topic discussed by a Harvard University history professor when she visits Marshall on Mar. 28 for a lecture at the student center. 

“Our current self-defense laws and policies can very often exclude vulnerable populations of people while allowing people who occupy more dominant subject positions to use violence against often weaker subjects,” historian Dr. Caroline Light said. 

Light also said that one common example of exclusions in self-defense laws is when women defend themselves against their abusive partners. 

“So, my biggest example of that is when women who are subject to intimate partner abuse use lethal violence to protect themselves from their number one statistical threat, which is usually men they know and often love or have loved—so, ex-partners, boyfriends, etc,” Light said. “When they do that, very often what we see is a pattern by which those women go to prison.” 

Light continued by saying, “Even if they live in a Stand Your Ground state and they claim Stand Your Ground immunity, they end up criminalized because the law cannot quite address these historical absences and exclusions even today. So, that’s sort of the purpose of my talk—is to help us better understand why our contemporary self-defense laws often fail to protect the vulnerable and, furthermore, empower often already empowered people to use violence and aggression against less powerful entities.” 

A prominent self-defense law that allows people to use lethal force if they are threatened in their own home is known as the Castle Doctrine.  

“So, it created an immunity called the Castle Doctrine where if someone threatens you with actual force or violence, and you’re in your home or on your property, you don’t have to try to get away first,” Light said. “You can use lethal violence immediately if you reasonably suspect that you are under threat.” 

Light said that there have been—and currently are—certain disparities within the Castle Doctrine and it is not an entirely universal principle.  

“So, what happens in the United States is the Castle Doctrine, as I mentioned before, it sort of selectively stretches to include certain people while excluding the vast majority of people,” Light said. “So, any Indigenous person, any African-descended person—even those not enslaved did not fully have access to the Castle Doctrine, I would argue—and of course women of whatever race or ethnicity did not have the capacity use self-defensive force against their largest statistical threat: their own husbands.” 

“It’s always been a selective,” Light said. “So, that’s a key concept because, again, here in the United States, we tend to think it’s universal. We all have a right to defend ourselves. We all have a right to defend our property. However, in reality, the Castle Doctrine really only protects a select few.” 

Light also explained that the issue of exclusions and exceptions within self-defense laws is an ongoing and contemporary one. 

“Not only are Stand Your Ground laws spreading into more states,” Light said. “So, more states are passing actual laws that say you can ‘stand your ground’ wherever you may legally be, and that’s outside your castle.” 

“Not only is that spreading, but there are new laws that take Stand Your Ground laws as sort of their priority and stretch them into other spaces, such as vehicular homicide,” Light said. “I think Florida was the first, but there are some twenty-one states that are passing laws that allow the drivers of cars that are driven into public demonstrations to claim that they were in fear for their life or they were fearful and that’s why they drove into a crowd of protestors and obtain legal immunity by claiming that they were fearful rather than aggressive.” 

Light went on to say that the primary purpose of her lecture is to make people skeptical of the current self-defense laws. 

“I want people to be skeptical,” Light said. “I want people to have a healthy skepticism of where these laws are coming from… So, I feel like what we need in this moment is a little but more of a historical view so that we can be a little bit more critical of the laws that are taking shape around us.”