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Thursday, January 20, 2005

CHANGE THE HOME DEFENCE LAWS? HERE’S SOME WRONG ARGUMENTS
I only just now got round to checking out the current Speccie. Some good articles in there. I have mixed feelings about this one by Ross Clark on now-cancelled changes to the home defence laws. I probably have mixed feelings about it because I have mixed feelings about the whole issue.
One of my concerns with greater licence for homeowners is the risk that it would increasingly lead to situations were innocents were unacceptably harmed by home defence measures. As Clark ends his article:

We have been here before: in the 1840s when, horrified by the casualty rate of innocent citizens injured by the spring guns and mantraps then commonly employed by gentlemen to defend their property, MPs banned the devices.
Unquestionably the country has a crime problem, and I am all in favour of the police tackling it with more vigour than bureaucracy currently allows them to do. But that is no excuse to dismantle civilised values. It would be a tragedy if we were forced to learn once again the reality of granting the public a blanket right to the defence of property

Point made. However, this problem should be easy to solve by restricting a toughened up law to inside the house or flat. In any case Ross Clark is jumping forward a little too fast, as the proposed changes were in fact quite mild and certainly did not amount to the dismantling of “civilised values”. Leaving that aside it is of course the criminal activity which truly undermines society.

Here’s the next argument:

Even old ladies can fire a pistol, it is true, but you can be sure that criminals will always be able to fire them faster and better.

This is the argument that if homeowners are allowed greater licence in defending themselves that will simply lead to burglars arming themselves in return, thus increasing the net amount of violence and damage, rather than reducing it.
This idea is wrong. Empirically so. Measured over the past century or so, the law has increasingly restricted the exercise of home and self defence. Simultaneously this has not led to less crime and less violent crime, but the opposite. Burglaries, what we’re talking about here specifically, has steeply shot up. This seems to suggest that crime has risen as the risks involved in it have fallen. From this it can be concluded that a tougher home defence law would deter potential burglars by increasing the opportunity cost to intolerable levels.
Of course there are other aspects to be considered, but better defended homes do not automatically lead to better armed burglars. The debate needs to tale that into account. Clark unfortunately misses this. Actually he contradicts himself, when he calls for the police to operate with “more vigour” – surely this would also lead to criminals arming themselves even more heavily in order to be stronger than the police. Surely Clark doesn’t want to encourage such a domestic arms race.
On the other hand, it’s more likely I’m right and a more vigourous response against criminal activity by both police and thevictims of crime would help push crime down.

In the end, as it goes with politics, the whole public demand will probably die down when the right event comes along:

Public enthusiasm for a blanket right of self-defence will last only as long as it takes a confused and frightened homeowner to kill a paperboy trying to stuff a copy of the Daily Mail through his letterbox

That we be a bad thing because this is an important debate, but that’s the way it’ll go I’m afraid.

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Comments:
Measured over the past century or so, the law has increasingly restricted the exercise of home and self defence. Simultaneously this has not led to less crime and less violent crime, but the opposite. Burglaries, what we’re talking about here specifically, has steeply shot up.Burglaries have fallen for the last few years, while gun laws have been tightened and home defence laws have not been made any more stringent. Other factors are clearly responsible (my guess is lower unemployment, reduced poverty, and most importantly the plummetting prices of the consumer electronics items that used to be burglars' staple goods).

Since we've got absolute proof of a change in the burglary rate unconnected to home defence laws, there's absolutely no grounds to believe that previous changes in the burglary rate were connected to home defence laws.

The wider availability of stuff-worth-stealing and the breakdown of Victorianesque moral values (overall a good thing in my book, but not without its costs), would seem to be far more important historical drivers. At the very least, you need to explain why they aren't.
 
Sorry, should've made clear in the comment above that burglaries have fallen over the last few years *after rising massively* for the previous 50.
 
Ok, I admit my tone was perhaps a bit too strident here. You are right of course to point out contributing factors to changes in the burglary rate. In fact those you mention are far more important, and in comparison home defence is more of a footnote really. I think my main point was really to make it clear that greater freedom for home defence would not necessarily lead to (more heavily) armed burglars.
 




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