A "reasonable force" tool
The Conservative MP David Davies – who has more specialist knowledge than most politicians of law and order as a volunteer Special Constable – wrote in the Daily Mail last year arguing for the legal right of UK homeowners to own taser-style stun guns. Recent debate around whether police officers should be routinely armed with the electric stun devices in response to rising levels of violent crime suggests that the arguments around arming for personal protection are not going away.
Callers to John Gaunt’s show on TalkSport this morning (a refreshing antidote to the liberal consensus of the mainstream media - call 08717 22 33 44) were strongly supporting the principle, with some happily confessing to owning tasers and electric stun batons – mostly purchased abroad – as a means of defending their family and property from intruders. The vast majority of the British public have always taken this view (typified by the response to the Tony Martin case) and admit freely to it when question by pollsters.
But as gun crimes rise, and more and more police are (rightly) routinely armed in the face of it, the obvious question arises: why, in a free society and one with high levels of violent crime, should we tolerate the police being armed, the criminals being armed (because they always will be), but the law-abiding citizen not to be? In his powerful article inspired by his own experience of a “hot” burglary (much more common in the UK than America, and usually at night when occupants are at home), David Davies makes a compelling case for self-protection:
"It is not fair to expect a law-abiding home-owner in pyjamas to confront multiple intruders with his bare hands .... Only one crime in 20 results in a conviction and burglars are not usually jailed unless they have been convicted several times. Politicians and judges need to realise that only by handing out long prison sentences will we tackle the rise in burglaries. In the meantime, given the Labour Government's failure to protect law-abiding citizens, it is time for home-owners to reassert their own rights to self defence."
Unfortunately, politicians and the police – who must bear some responsibility for the surge in violent crime – still take the attitude that the people whose taxes pay their salaries cannot be trusted to defend ourselves. The police establishment are essentially abusing their monopoly (classic “producer capture”) by resisting the dispersion of power to grant to citizens the capacity for self-defence, which in real terms translates to the enforced emasculation of the law-abiding citizen, even while the threat to their safety and secuirty grows.
Adult men therefore, whose wife and daughter could be at risk from rape or murder as a criminal thug cruises freely around their home at night, are expected to sit cowering in the dark on the edge of their bed, while a police operator comforts them with reassuring words that the police service are a mere 20 minutes away. As Davies writes:
"The Taser offers a hope. Having heard the noise of the break in your wife dials 999 while you stand at the top of the stairs pointing the gun. Anyone coming up would have to weigh up their chances of making it to the top before you pulled the trigger. My guess is that most thieves would not take the risk."
Lawyers could (and did in the 1999 Tony Martin case) successfully argue that shooting a burglar who is leaving your property in the back (whether the gun is licensed or not), is by itself, not “reasonable force” and the homeowner is therefore liable for a manslaughter conviction. But what is reasonable force exactly? Surely a taser – which is not deadly and has an excellent safety record, despite attempts to suggest otherwise by Amnesty – would surely be a completely fair example of “reasonable force”. If it is reasonable for police officers to use them to subdue a violent drugged-up maniac wielding a broken beer bottle in the street, surely an armed burglar with serious intent warrants the same reasonable treatment?
Owning a taser would be strictly for defence rather than deterrence in the first instance, but as more people owned them and the middle-class stigma reinforced by the liberal media eroded, deterrence would become a bigger factor and the positive side-effect would grow (there is strong evidence that arming homeowners deters burglars, reduces crime and doesn’t stimulate an arms race).
As a limited extension of traditional Common Law principles, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that while firearms cannot be tolerated (and probably will never be legalised for private possession in England ever again – the cultural opposition is now too entrenched), tasers do represent a compromise option where householders are granted the right to defend themselves, without being given the capacity to deliver deadly force. And like most sensible law and order proposals, we have the American experience to suggest it would work.
Despite the proliferation of handguns and the more liberal gun laws in the United States, tasers there are widely owned and have become a more civilised (and stylish) part of the commercial “self-protection” industry. This is in response to the widespread adoption of “Castle Doctrines” in more than half of all US states (most recently Texas). In a nutshell, the law is derived from English Common Law principles where citizens who in public who have a duty to retreat in the face of violence, are allowed to defend themselves – with deadly force if necessary - in their home, on the legal presumption that if you are in your own residence, there is nowhere to which you can retreat. This is essentially the same as the Householder Protection Bill, that was floated in response to the Radio 4 Today Programme competition in 2004, but which in typically supine and aloof fashion, politicians refused even to sponsor in Parliament.
There is only anectdotal evidence at present that the middle-classes in Britain have begun to arm themselves, but with public attitudes to the police becoming increasingly sceptical, and shock crime cases of people being attacked in their own homes becoming more common, it is only a matter of time before a householder who has already taken the decision to illegally own a taser, successfully uses it to incapacitate an intruder. The police would without doubt charge the homeowner and the controversy would explode. The debate about law and order in Britain would finally demand political attention, because you can be guaranteed that the print media and the vast majority of the public would be on the side of the homeowner. In fact, you probably couldn’t imagine a more obvious case of public vs. politicians where the stakes were so high. And MPs, who as Davies writes, have failed to uphold the “unwritten compact between the State and the citizen”, would finally have to respond.
P.S. Buying tasers online to be owned in the UK is illegal, but there is nothing unlawful about doing some harmless window shopping….