(Page 2 of 3)
During the debate over the Prevention of Crime Act in the House of Commons, a member from Northern Ireland told his colleagues of a woman employed by Parliament who had to cross a lonely heath on her route home and had armed herself with a knitting needle. A month earlier, she had driven off a youth who tried to snatch her handbag by jabbing him "on a tender part of his body." Was it to be an offense to carry a knitting needle? The attorney general assured the M.P. that the woman might be found to have a reasonable excuse but added that the public should be discouraged "from going about with offensive weapons in their pockets; it is the duty of society to protect them."
Another M.P. pointed out that while "society ought to undertake the defense of its members, nevertheless one has to remember that there are many places where society cannot get, or cannot get there in time. On those occasions a man has to defend himself and those whom he is escorting. It is not very much consolation that society will come forward a great deal later, pick up the bits, and punish the violent offender."
In the House of Lords, Lord Saltoun argued: "The object of a weapon was to assist weakness to cope with strength and it is this ability that the bill was framed to destroy. I do not think any government has the right, though they may very well have the power, to deprive people for whom they are responsible of the right to defend themselves." But he added: "Unless there is not only a right but also a fundamental willingness amongst the people to defend themselves, no police force, however large, can do it."
That willingness was further undermined by a broad revision of criminal law in 1967 that altered the legal standard for self-defense. Now everything turns on what seems to be "reasonable" force against an assailant, considered after the fact. As Glanville Williams notes in his Textbook of Criminal Law, that requirement is "now stated in such mitigated terms as to cast doubt on whether it [self-defense] still forms part of the law."
The original common law standard was similar to what still prevails in the U.S. Americans are free to carry articles for their protection, and in 33 states law-abiding citizens may carry concealed guns. Americans may defend themselves with deadly force if they believe that an attacker is about to kill or seriously injure them, or to prevent a violent crime. Our courts are mindful that, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, "detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an upraised knife."
But English courts have interpreted the 1953 act strictly and zealously. Among articles found illegally carried with offensive intentions are a sandbag, a pickaxe handle, a stone, and a drum of pepper. "Any article is capable of being an offensive weapon," concede the authors of Smith and Hogan Criminal Law, a popular legal text, although they add that if the article is unlikely to cause an injury the onus of proving intent to do so would be "very heavy."
The 1967 act has not been helpful to those obliged to defend themselves either. Granville Williams points out: "For some reason that is not clear, the courts occasionally seem to regard the scandal of the killing of a robber as of greater moment than the safety of the robber's victim in respect of his person and property."
A sampling of cases illustrates the impact of these measures:
� In 1973 a young man running on a road at night was stopped by the police and found to be carrying a length of steel, a cycle chain, and a metal clock weight. He explained that a gang of youths had been after him. At his hearing it was found he had been threatened and had previously notified the police. The justices agreed he had a valid reason to carry the weapons. Indeed, 16 days later he was attacked and beaten so badly he was hospitalized. But the prosecutor appealed the ruling, and the appellate judges insisted that carrying a weapon must be related to an imminent and immediate threat. They sent the case back to the lower court with directions to convict.
� In 1987 two men assaulted Eric Butler, a 56-year-old British Petroleum executive, in a London subway car, trying to strangle him and smashing his head against the door. No one came to his aid. He later testified, "My air supply was being cut off, my eyes became blurred, and I feared for my life." In desperation he unsheathed an ornamental sword blade in his walking stick and slashed at one of his attackers, stabbing the man in the stomach. The assailants were charged with wounding. Butler was tried and convicted of carrying an offensive weapon.
� In 1994 an English homeowner, armed with a toy gun, managed to detain two burglars who had broken into his house while he called the police. When the officers arrived, they arrested the homeowner for using an imitation gun to threaten or intimidate. In a similar incident the following year, when an elderly woman fired a toy cap pistol to drive off a group of youths who were threatening her, she was arrested for putting someone in fear. Now the police are pressing Parliament to make imitation guns illegal.
� In 1999 Tony Martin, a 55-year-old Norfolk farmer living alone in a shabby farmhouse, awakened to the sound of breaking glass as two burglars, both with long criminal records, burst into his home. He had been robbed six times before, and his village, like 70 percent of rural English communities, had no police presence. He sneaked downstairs with a shotgun and shot at the intruders. Martin received life in prison for killing one burglar, 10 years for wounding the second, and a year for having an unregistered shotgun. The wounded burglar, having served 18 months of a three-year sentence, is now free and has been granted �5,000 of legal assistance to sue Martin.
The failure of English policy to produce a safer society is clear, but what of British jibes about "America's vigilante values" and our much higher murder rate?
Historically, America has had a high homicide rate and England a low one. In a comparison of New York and London over a 200-year period, during most of which both populations had unrestricted access to firearms, historian Eric Monkkonen found New York's homicide rate consistently about five times London's. Monkkonen pointed out that even without guns, "the United States would still be out of step, just as it has been for two hundred years."
Legal historian Richard Maxwell Brown has argued that Americans have more homicides because English law insists an individual should retreat when attacked, whereas Americans believe they have the right to stand their ground and kill in self-defense. Americans do have more latitude to protect themselves, in keeping with traditional common law standards, but that would have had less significance before England's more restrictive policy was established in 1967.