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Self-Defense in the UK

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In Diana's July 3rd webcast, one of the topics she covered was self-defense and one of the points she made was that victims of violent attack in Great Britain could be prosecuted for fighting back in self-defense.

A listener who was a former UK resident (now living in Hong Kong) wrote back to let her know that UK law did allow "reasonable force" in resisting a violent attack and wanted to correct any potentially erroneous negative impressions of British laws. One of the references he cited was this 6/29/2011 BBC news story, "Right to self-defence in homes to be 'much clearer'".

However, even if UK law does recognize a victim's theoretical right to self-defense, a big question is precisely whether and how that right is recognized by the authorities in practice.

A few years ago, American gun law expert David Kopel posted this interesting report from a US student studying abroad in London. According to her, the London police were very explicit in telling her not to fight back:

I'm an alumna of Pepperdine University, a school which proudly owns a house/campus on Exhibition Road, literally across the street from the Imperial University, in the middle of South Kensington, right near Harrods, Hyde Park, the Albert Hall. Within two days of arriving for our first semester in London, our relatively small [American] class (37 students, 10 men, 27 women) was visited by a local police officer to instruct us on living in London. Her first question was to the women, 'How many of you brought mace?' Three girls raised their hands. She told us we couldn't use it, shouldn't even carry it, it was illegal.

Had any of us brought any other type of weapon, such as a knife? Several of the men in our group indicated that they carried pocket knives. She told us to leave them at home too.

Then she instructed us on how to properly be a victim. If we were attacked, we were to assume a defensive posture, such as raising our hands to block an attack. The reason was (and she spelled it out in no uncertain terms) that if a witness saw the incident and we were to attempt to defend ourselves by fighting back, the witness would be unable to tell who the aggressor was. However, if we rolled up in a ball, it would be quite clear who the victim was.

The feeling I got was, in London, it is not permissible to defend oneself. I also understood that this police officer thought Americans were more likely to be aggressive and/or cause more damage to a potential attacker. She was warning us for our own good. I have to admit, she did not make me feel particularly safe.

Last week, historian Joyce Lee Malcolm wrote a piece in the 8/16/2011 Wall Street Journal, "The Soft-on-Crime Roots of British Disorder". (If the link takes you to the truncated version, just enter the full title into a Google search box to get to the full piece.)

Some excerpts from her OpEd:

Victims of aggression who defend themselves or attempt to protect their property have been shown no such leniency. Burglars who injured themselves breaking into houses have successfully sued homeowners for damages. In February, police in Surrey told gardeners not to put wire mesh on the windows of their garden sheds as burglars might hurt themselves when they break in.

If a homeowner protecting himself and his family injures an intruder beyond what the law considers "reasonable," he will be prosecuted for assault. Tony Martin, an English farmer, was sentenced to life in prison for killing one burglar and wounding another with a shotgun during the seventh break-in at his rural home in 1999. While his sentence was later reduced to five years, he was refused parole in 2003 because he was judged a danger to burglars.

In 2008, a robber armed with a knife attacked shopkeeper Tony Singh in West Lancashire. During the struggle the intruder was fatally stabbed with his own knife. Although the robber had a long record of violent assault, prosecutors were preparing to charge Mr. Singh with murder until public outrage stopped them...

All sorts of weapons useful for self-defense have been severely restricted or banned. A 1953 law, the "Prevention of Crime Act," made any item someone carried for possible protection an "offensive weapon" and therefore illegal. Today there is also a list of devices the mere possession of which carries a 10-year sentence. Along with rocket launchers and machine guns, the list includes chemical sprays and any knife with a blade more than three inches long.

Handguns? Parliament banned their possession in 1997. As an example of the preposterous lengths to which zealous British authorities would enforce this law, consider the fate of Paul Clark, a former soldier. He was arrested in 2009 by Surrey police when he brought them a shotgun he found in his garden. For doing this personally—instead of asking the police to retrieve it—he received a five-year prison sentence. It took a public outcry to reduce the normal five-year sentence to 12 months, and then suspend it...

Knives? It's illegal for anyone under age 18 to buy one, and using a knife for self-defense is unlawful. In 1991, American tourist Dina Letarte of Tempe, Ariz., used a penknife to protect herself from a violent attack by three men in a London subway. She was convicted of carrying an offensive weapon, fined, and given a two-year suspended sentence.

The result of policies that punish the innocent but fail to deter crime has been stark, even before the latest urban violence...

Now it may be that the latest "clarification" of self-defense laws from the current UK government (including what counts as "reasonable") will respect the rights of innocent victims, rather than violating them.

During the recent UK riots, the police told shopkeepers that they could use "reasonable force" against the rioters and looters. And many innocent people did bravely use baseball bats and clubs to protect themselves against the bad guys. But if any of the would-be victims had presumed to protect themselves with a handgun, they likely would have been arrested. If self-defense with a handgun is illegal, then it de facto falls outside of what the government regards as legal "reasonable force".

Under any legal system where tools of effective self-defense (such as handguns) are banned, the losers are the physically weaker victims (women, the elderly, those with disabilities) who are easily preyed upon by the young and the strong.

There's a damned good reason that Americans have always regarded handguns as the "Great Equalizer". Let's hope that some day the UK government chooses to do the same.

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