Nov 22, 2021 - Podcasts

Understanding American self-defense laws

Closing arguments are expected to begin today in the murder trial of Travis and Gregory McMichael and William Bryan, the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. This comes just a few days after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty in the fatal shooting of two people at demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Though the cases are unfolding in two different parts of the country, they have something in common: all the defendants claim self-defense.

  • Plus, election officials are already preparing for next year’s midterms.
  • And, why you shouldn’t have a problem buying that Thanksgiving turkey.

Guests: Caroline Light, author of the book “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense;” and Axios' Sarah Mucha and Erica Pandey.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, David Toledo and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Transcript

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INTRO

NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, November 22nd. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: election officials are already preparing for next year’s midterms. Plus, why you shouldn’t have a problem buying that Thanksgiving turkey - if you haven’t already.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: understanding American self-defense laws.

Closing arguments are expected to begin today in the murder trial of Travis and Gregory McMichael and William Bryan, the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. This stage of the trial comes just a few days after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty in the fatal shooting of two people at demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Though the cases are unfolding in two different parts of the country, they do have one thing in common: all the defendants claimed self-defense.

Caroline Light is the author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense” and is here now with what we need to know about how self-defense works in the US. Caroline, thank you for being with us.

CAROLINE LIGHT: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: Does the notion of self-defense change from state to state?

CAROLINE: In a short answer, yes. Currently a little over half of our states have stand your ground laws and those vary across the states as well. But the main point of the stand your ground law is that there is no duty to retreat. If you reasonably perceive a threat to your life or of great bodily harm, you are not obligated to try to retreat before fighting back with violence, including lethal violence.

Our laws of self-defense are based in English common law doctrine. However, in the context of what would become the United States, the laws transform significantly over time to expand the boundaries through which certain people, certain kinds of people could use lethal violence under certain circumstances. So, one thing I think the takeaway here is that the laws of self-defense, of justifiable homicide in the United States are and have always been selective and partial.

NIALA: When you say that, I feel like I need to ask you historically how race has played into claims of self-defense.

CAROLINE: It always has. I would say that race and gender together have played a significant role in the adjudication of self-defense from the very beginnings of what would become the United States. So for instance, this is a settler colonial nation so when indigenous people had a claim to homeland, for instance, European-descended settlers could use violence against them and claim to be quote “defending themselves.” If we look at our nation's history of lynching, of racial terror, we can see so many instances where white people claimed to be killing, to be maiming, to be destroying entire black communities in the interest of self-defense.

NIALA: How much do you see the legacy of that in verdicts that are being reached today?

CAROLINE: It's tremendous. I mean, it's history repeating itself over and over and over again. When you look at our contemporary laws, they are written in a way that makes them appear completely neutral. However, when we see them adjudicated in courtrooms, we can see how they are partial and selective. We can look at Cyntoia Brown, who I believe spent 15 years in prison. She's a young black woman who tried to defend herself against a white man. So I would say we need to pay greater attention to the outcome of these cases, usually the outcome is very different from the outcome we saw in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.

NIALA: Caroline Light is a senior lecturer at Harvard University based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

CAROLINE: Thank you so much for having me on.

NIALA: In 15 seconds, we’re back with how state election officials are getting ahead of misinformation before the 2022 midterms.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Next year's midterm elections could provide the nation a chance to reset from the chaos of 2020 that led to the capital insurrection. And with so much at stake, election officials are working hard even now. Axios’ Political reporter Sarah Mucha has been talking to officials all across the country about this.

Sarah, what are these election officials worried will happen?

SARAH MUCHA: Well, they're worried that they're going to see similar things, but maybe on a larger scale that we saw in 2020, which is that folks saw the election results, but they questioned the authenticity of whether or not those officials actually won their elections. You know, the Michigan Secretary of State told us the worst case scenario is we lose America as we know it. The idea is elections are the bedrock of our democracy. And if people are questioning the results well, that could spell a lot of trouble for coming elections and the stability of our tomorrow.

NIALA: So what are they trying to do to prevent that?

SARAH: Well, you know, they're launching a bunch of initiatives to educate their voters in Minnesota and Nevada specifically they're teaching people how audits work. They're having, you know, forums where they can speak to folks. And, uh, something really interesting and specific in California is that they're erecting these glass walls to allow people to watch ballot counting in a more transparent.

NIALA: Do we expect that some of these practices may become a permanent part of the electoral process and maybe also part of the 2024 presidential election?

SARAH: Oh absolutely. I think that what we're seeing as a result of people not trusting election results is that a more transparent system, in a lot of these places, is going to become standard practice. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told me, she said, what they saw in 2020 was sort of amateur stuff. They were throwing it at a wall to see what could stick, but the reason that it's so grave for 2022 is that these efforts can be more sophisticated. They had a practice run, and now maybe they're going to be using 2022 as a way to try to maybe solidify some of their efforts in 2024, which is why the combat efforts against that kind of misinformation are also going to become more stringent.

NIALA: Axios political reporter Sarah Mucha. Thank you, Sarah.

SARAH: Thanks so much.

NIALA: Okay. So we've been talking a lot about the global supply chain over the last few months and worries about what those delays mean for the holidays. Well Axios business reporter Erica Pandey is here to give us the straight facts on how our Thanksgiving meal might be affected. Erica, if you were like me and have not yet done your grocery shopping...am I in trouble?

ERICA PANDEY: In terms of turkeys, you'll be fine. So there's been some talk about a Turkey shortage. That was the worry back in October because a bunch of people bought their turkeys earlier than they would have this year for some reason. But now you'll be able to get the bird for sure.

NIALA: What about everything else?

ERICA: So there are some issues, and a lot of it is not related to the food itself, but like you said, the supply chain, the labor shortage. So Ocean Spray told ABC News that they might have some issues with canned cranberry sauce because there's an aluminum can shortage. And also there's the transportation issues because of the labor shortage. Same thing's happening with frozen pies, refrigerated pies...

NIALA: But it's not like people need to be worried that they won't be able to find what they need?

ERICA: Yes, people will be fine in terms of getting a table together, might be a little pricier cause of inflation, but you'll get what you need. The one really interesting thing, though, that I learned from the Butterball CEO is that you might end up with a bigger Turkey than you want.

The Turkey shortage is in the 10 to 14 pound birds, 16 and up is good. So, if you're doing a smaller meal, you might end up with a 16 pound turkey. So I would say the thing to do to prepare is think about where you're going to do with those leftovers, creative Turkey sandwich ideas.

NIALA: I was just going to say, you should think about how long it takes to cook a Turkey of that size. As I've also learned the hard way. Erica Pandey, Axios business reporter -- have a great Thanksgiving, Erica.

ERICA: You too, Niala.

NIALA: Before we go - this weekend, Adele released her new album, 30. You may have already heard this hit song Easy On Me -- which is the 2nd track on the album:

["Easy On Me" by Adele plays]

And you’ll know it’s the second track if you listen on Spotify, because Adele asked the streaming company to remove its default shuffle button for albums - and they agreed!

That means the default for Spotify premium is now to play every track in its original order. Tweeting her thanks on Saturday Adele said: Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.

That’s it for us today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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