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Shooting a Burglar

October 9, 2012

You might have seen today’s news from the Conservative Party Conference that the Government will now allow householders to exercise “reasonable force” in the protection of their homes and families from burglars.

“Being confronted by an intruder in your own home is terrifying, and the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side. That is why I am strengthening the current law.

Householders who act instinctively and honestly in self-defence are victims of crime and and should be treated that way. We need to dispel doubts in this area once and for all, and I am very pleased to be today delivering on the pledge that we made in opposition.”

– Chris Grayling

Now, this might sound like great news to your average bloke on the street, but some of us have heard this story before. Look, here’s Tony Blair’s government in 2005:

Householders can kill intruders in self defence, police and prosecutors say today. Anyone confronted in their home can use a weapon such as a bat, knife or even a gun. And they are entitled to strike first.

People defending themselves or their property will not face criminal charges, however badly the burglar is hurt, as long as they feel under threat and act “honestly and instinctively” in the heat of the moment. The official advice comes after complaints that the law was weighted in favour of criminals.

Tony Blair this afternoon spelled out the message. He said: “Don’t be in any doubt, you are entitled to defend yourself. And it is only in the most extreme set of circumstances that anyone is going to get prosecuted for attacking or killing a burglar in their own home.”

Evening Standard – 01 February 2005

In 2008, Jack Straw issued a clarification to say that:

…people would be protected legally if they defended themselves “instinctively”, they feared for their own safety or that of others, and the level of force used was not excessive or disproportionate.

And look, here’s Gordon Brown in 2010, saying much the same thing again:

“I strongly support the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves, their families and their properties – and to do so with reasonable force. As a country, all our instincts and sympathies rightly lie with law-abiding citizens. Society sides with the victims of crime, so too should the system. And I am determined that will.

“It is a long-standing principle of our laws and liberties that it is for the courts, not politicians, to pronounce on this in any individual case. But I am clear, once due process has been followed, if the courts show a proper degree of understanding, and mercy, for the situation the victim found themselves in, then that seems to me to wholly reasonable and sensible.”

Gordon Brown – 23 January 2010

With the newspapers regularly packed full of articles on the crime of burglary (for example, the Daily Mail website lists 1300 such stories) the threat of being sent to prison for protecting your own home seems to weigh unnecessarily heavily on the minds of tabloid readers. This of course explains why Grayling chose to include it in his speech. It remains a shallow vote winner on an issue which doesn’t really exist, which is why Brown and Blair were also so keen to make political hay with it.

However, as George Eaton points out in the New Statesman today, the law is already fairly clear on this:

The current law, which allows householders to use “reasonable force”, supports them provided that:

– they acted instinctively;
– they feared for their safety or that of others, and acted based on their perception of the threat faced and the scale of that threat;
– they acted to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; and
– the level of force used was not excessive or disproportionate in the circumstances as they viewed them.

George Eaton: Has Chris Grayling actually read the law on household defence?

Importantly, as the Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer noted whilst rejecting calls to change the law in 2009:

There are many cases, some involving death, where no prosecutions are brought. We would only ever bring a prosecution where we thought that the degree of force was unreasonable in such a way that the jury would realistically convict. So these are very rare cases and history tells us that the current test works very well.

Kier Starmer

Much of the tabloid hysteria appears to be driven by heavily-publicised cases such as those of Peter Flanagan, who was briefly arrested on suspicion of murder last year after stabbing a burglar to death, before being released without charge. It should seem to be a perfectly reasonable precaution to arrest someone in the immediate aftermath of a death (as for instance, we aren’t instantly aware of whether the deceased was lured there intentionally) but each time this unfortunate scenario occurs it seems to re-ignite the same tired-old debate.

Instead, we should see Grayling’s latest comments for what they are, an announcement of rights which you already possess, in order to dishonestly win votes by appearing tough on crime, whilst simultaneously encouraging a dangerous vigilante mindset in both home-owners and potential burglars, who might now be tempted to arm themselves further, leading to an escalation of violence.

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