May 1, 2023
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The Return of the Duel

by Jonathan Wallace

Daniel French is a conservative. I disagree with him about most things. But I was impressed with some things he said in his April 23 column in the Times, about Texas governor Abbot's promise to pardon Daniel Perry, the former Army sergeant who intentionally drove his car into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in Austin (after posting on social media about his desire to kill a few of them), then shot the first man who approached with a weapon (which was not even pointed in his direction).

This is very reminiscent of the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17 year old who intruded into a Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin, then shot three people, killing two, and was acquitted by a jury-- and has since become a "folk hero" in Trumpean America.

French says of Perry: "That is not a man you want anywhere near a gun. Kyle Rittenhouse is not a man you want anywhere near a gun." This is in both cases, obviously, intuitively true, yet French is virtually the only person on the Right to say so.

Abbot said, “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney.” Perry's victim was named Garrett Foster. NPR reported, "[S]everal protesters who believed Rittenhouse was an active shooter began chasing after him". One of them, who survived, Gaige Grosskreutz, pointed a pistol at Rittenhouse, who was the better shot.(I exclude from this essay for reasons of flow and space a discussion of the different moral, legal and practical implications of the fact that the two people Rittenhouse killed were unarmed.)

Governor Abbott: please comment on the fact that Garrett Foster and Gaige Grosskreutz were also standing their ground. This is clearly, indisputably true. What is the scenario under which these victims did not have the same right to point a weapon at Perry or Rittenhouse that he had to point at them? Did Abbot not think of this? Or did he not care?

To the question, why does it not matter that the victims each had a right to stand his ground, there are two possible answers, each of them horrifying in different ways. Another way of asking the question: what happens when two people both stand their ground?

The first, more apolitical answer is that we are making a return to the code duello that was widely practiced in the United States well into the 19th century, under which Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton without fear of prison and continued with his political and law careers; and under which, decades later, John Calhoun shot a number of people whom it is believed have not even been accurately counted. In the world of the duel, the better shot has all the rights, and the worse one is dead.

Since a duel is a provocation, it doesn't much matter that Perry and Rittenhouse deliberately invaded other people's space while armed. I flash on the scene in McCabe and Ms. Miller in which a gunman, confronting a naive cowpoke on a bridge, asks to see his weapon. The other man obligingly draws it to hand it over-- and the gunman shoots him dead. Nothing really illegal has happened under the code duello-- nothing proveable, anyway.

However, the even more horrifying answer is the one that probably applies. In Greg Abbot's mind, there are two categories of Americans: those to whom the Second Amendment grants the right to shoot; and the other category, those on whom it is open season-- the people the first group has the right to kill.

See how that works? Perry and Rittenhouse had a right to stand their ground, Foster and Grosskreuz did not. And the reason they didn't: they were Black Lives Matter protestors.

In that universe, the Second Amendment is an exclusive right of the people I call the Lost Boys, the Batshit-Violent and armed.

I have been worrying about this problem for decades. In a scheduled online debate I had, by invitation, with a gun rights proponent circa 1997, I asked why the NRA had not come to the defense of the Black Panthers when they-- perfectly legally--began bringing their guns into the California statehouse in the 1960's. I have asked others as well. No one ever answered, because the answer is obvious but was, at that time, unsayable; less so today: "The Black Panthers did not have Second Amendment rights because they were in the category of people we are allowed to shoot." Bad people, which in the minds of the Batshit and racist, includes most African Americans.

During the 1997 debate, I received an email from someone who said he was a Vietnam vet, amd who signed his real name. He informed me that if his eyesight were better, he would put me six feet under. An Internet search confirmed that he was a gun owner (he posted on black powder groups) (not black power, if I confused you), was a Vietnam vet and had criminal assault charges pending. That was a more innocent time, in the sense fewer people knew how to troll anonymously.

There is nothing new under the sun. The Batshit Violent have always been with us. What has changed is that people like Greg Abbot are giving them permission.