But this also has social consequences. Thanks to Stand Your Ground, citizens must now fear their armed neighbors in addition to prospective criminals. What if someone who spies you walking down the street thinks you look suspicious? What if you become a target for would-be George Zimmermans? Or what if the man you argue with, or potentially insult or offend, even unintentionally, is armed and irascible—and the argument escalates?
The latter possibility was chillingly illustrated in a movie theater in Tampa last year, when retired police captain Curtis Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulson after the two had argued, and Oulson threw popcorn in Reeves’ face. Reeves initially invoked Stand Your Ground, claiming he did not know if Oulson meant him bodily harm. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law protects gun owners if they so much as sense the threat of bodily harm. In the darkened movie theater, Reeves said he could not tell the nature of his assailant’s weapon—he didn’t know that Oulson was only throwing popcorn. In a Stand Your Ground society, it makes sense to suspect your neighbor—and fear the worst.
The gun-rights movement claims it is a staunch defender of the peace, contributing to and bolstering law and order. As gun rights are currently advanced, nothing could be further from the truth.
Increasingly, gun-rights advocates like National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre offer dystopian warnings to make their case. In November, LaPierre wrote a letter to NRA members—fittingly entitled “Is Chaos at our Door?”—outlining this vision. “[T]he world that surrounds us is growing more dangerous all the time,” he warned. “Whether it’s enemy state actors, foreign terrorists, Mexican drug cartels or domestic criminals, the threats Americans face are massive—and growing.” He invoked massive terrorist attacks like those in Mumbai in 2008 or Kenya in 2013, hordes of armed and violent gangs that “are embedded coast to coast,” and an influx of illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. LaPierre complained that the government had detained and then “intentionally released 36,000 illegal aliens” with criminal records. “Where all these released criminals went,” he wrote, “no one knows. But you can bet on this: They’re among us, embedded throughout our society. For all you know, you pass them in your car on your way to work.”
LaPierre’s argument for being armed boils down to this: Americans are on the verge of—or already sinking into—a state of anarchy, where it is each man for himself. In that state, “the government can’t—or won’t—protect you…Only you can protect you,” he warns.
Even if most gun owners don’t share LaPierre’s fears, the gun-rights movement may have helped make them seem more plausible. In addition to pushing Stand Your Ground laws, the NRA fought universal background checks. Their premise—that it will not stop hardened and determined criminals from accessing guns—ensured that criminals could have easy access to guns at gun shows or from unscrupulous arms dealers. What’s more, thanks to NRA pressure, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) is also greatly hindered from pursuing such dealers and stemming the flow of weapons to criminals. As Alan Berlow reported in Mother Jones, the agency is denied valuable information to track weapons purchases, since the FBI is required by law to destroy records of gun sales—the ones that do involve a background check—within 24 hours. Further, the ATF cannot follow up on missing or stolen guns from dealers, since the agency is prohibited from forcing dealers to conduct annual inventories of their merchandise. With NRA support, Congress has also imposed limits on ATF inspections and penalties of gun dealers, and “barred the use of ATF trace data in administrative proceedings such as those to revoke a dealer’s license.”