Tim Lambert, professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and author of the blog Deltoid and I have been having a rather drawn-out exchange over self-defense in England. That exchange began over this news story in which it was reported that a man had been attacked by three others, one having a handgun. The man resisted, using a short-sword, and killed one of his attackers. The man was sentenced to eight years in prison. That was the extent of the report.
That story drew a lot of attention from many of us in the blogosphere, and Tim compiled several of the responses in a post where he called us “Gullible Gunners” and chided us for leaping to the conclusion (or perpetuating the belief) that “self-defense in the UK is illegal.” In the comments to that original post I tried to make my point:
(T)here have been numerous cases of the British courts charging people for defending themselves. The law there seems to be one based on “proportional response” – e.g., stabbing someone who isn’t armed with a weapon is “excessive force.” So is bashing them over the head with a brick. There are many of these cases, and they’ve lead us to the conclusion that private citizens in Britain had best not resist attack, or face prosecution for usurping the authority of the State in its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. My primary objection to the news story was that it reinforces that conclusion. If you are a reader of that story, ignorant as to the details, in combination with all the other similar stories of people prosecuted after defending themselves, the message is “don’t resist, you’ll go to jail.”
I stand by that statement, (though I’d word it just a bit differently) and I also believe it’s indicative of, and endemic to the basic philosophy of the UK government and many (but not all) of its people as pertains to violence.
When I wrote this piece I tried to explain what I see as the generalized UK philosophy concerning self-defense and weapons, and why I believe that mindset is in error. I attempted to illustrate the cognitive dissonance produced by the failure of that philosophy to reduce violent crime, to which Tim Lambert responded:
When you started talking about overall crime rates I pointed out that these were irrelevant to your claim you respond by substituting a different claim, a claim about how weapon restrictions allegedly caused crime increases. Well, I suppose we can discuss that as well, but first I need you to stop flitting about like a butterfly and retract or defend your original claim that “laws against weapons have essentially no effect on the access to weapons by criminals”.
As I said, the problem as I see it is that Tim and I have entirely different perspectives due to our entirely different philosophies. I’m obviously not succeeding in getting him to understand my position, or even recognize it.
However, the point of my writing these posts is not to convice Tim of his error, but to explain my philosophy, to draw Tim’s philosophy out for scrutiny, and to allow readers to see each and decide which of us has a better grip on reality.
Before I get started in earnest here, in deference to Tim, let’s get a couple of things out of the way.
Tim asked in his last post:
(Y)ou asserted that the statement ‘self defense in the UK is illegal’ is ‘practically true’. If you acknowledge that you can defend yourself without a weapon, then surely you must concede that your statement is false?
Yes, Tim. I acknowledge (and have acknowledged) that the subjects of the UK still have a legal right to self defense – without a weapon. I further acknowledge that subjects of the UK have a – severely limited and somewhat nebulous – legal right to defend themselves with a weapon. Point conceded. As I said in my last post, I thought I made my position perfectly clear, but apparently failed.
Let me give a couple of examples. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to do archive research through UK online newspapers for stories on self defense. I found four in which weapons were involved. First, there was this story in which a wheelchair bound man used teargas to fend off a knife-wielding attacker. The victim of the attack, 22 year-old Nicholas Ashworth, bought the teargas after being beaten and robbed of £100 three weeks prior. Instead of yielding to victimhood again, Mr. Ashworth defended himself, but was arrested – not for defending himself per se – but for having the teargas which is illegal to possess in England as it is considered an offensive weapon. (You’ll note that Mr. Ashworth’s attacker used a knife in the attack, which is also considered an offensive weapon, and is illegal to possess when out in public.)
Mr. Ashworth said:
“I knew it was wrong and against the law but in my view I was acting in self defence. I thought the man was going to kill me.
“It is a sad state of affairs that disabled people like me have to carry such things like CS sprays for protection.”
That statement begs for comment, but I’ll pass for the moment. (Mr. Ashworth was not, apparently, charged with using the teargas in his defense, but he was charged with possession of it. I have been unable to determine the outcome of the case against him. Perhaps some reasonable local barrister convinced the Crown that no jury would convict a man in a wheelchair.)
Then there was this report in which an 80 year-old woman, Jean Freke, defended herself successfully with a sword against two young attackers. Mrs. Freke described the attack and her response:
She said: “I was sitting in the drawing room doing some writing when I heard six or seven loud explosions.
“I went into the hall and two men came bursting in. They grabbed hold of me and pushed me backwards. It was pretty rough and tumble, I can tell you.”
One of the raiders ransacked the room, while Mrs Freke struggled with the other. “He gave me a violent shove and I landed on my back on the floor,” she said. “That made me a little nervous but I managed to get to my feet and carry on with the fight.
“Then I realised that in the corner of the room was my sword, which I do keep for self-defence. I manoeuvred him in that direction and was taking punches everywhere.
“But I managed to grab the sword and drew it from its scabbard and placed it in the middle of his chest and shouted, ‘Get out, get out’.
“Their attitude then changed and they suddenly became cowards and ran off at the sight of my sword.
“There was a moment when I thought, ‘This is it’ but you can’t take fright and you can’t panic. You just do what you have to do.”
Her attackers are believed to be 18 to 20 years old and responsible for as many as 15 other similar attacks against elderly victims in the area.
Bear in mind that if this brave and resourceful woman lived in Australia, she would very soon have to give up that sword as the Australian government has decided that citizens shouldn’t have access to swords unless they’re licensed collectors. After all, her attackers might steal it from her. Or something.
In this story a shop keeper – near where a jeweller was recently shot to death during a robbery – was held up by two men, one armed with a chisel. Mr. Webster, the shop keeper, pulled a baseball bat that he had put in his shop after the death of his neighbor, Mrs. Bates, and a struggle ensued. Mr. Webster explained:
“Since Mrs Bates was killed I’ve been on my guard against people who arrive on scooters and are wearing crash-helmets coming into the shop. The lad picked up a bottle of drink, came to the counter and gave me a pound. Then, as I went to the till, I saw him take a swing at me. I put my arm up to defend myself but he pulled out a chisel and told me to empty the till. So I grabbed hold of the bat.
“We started struggling. It was an intense fight that lasted a couple of minutes, and half the shop was wrecked in the process before he ran off.
“Obviously what happened to Mrs Bates went through my mind. But I’d do the same again in the same situation. I saw the chisel but, for all I knew, he could have had a gun.”
Mr Webster, who was recently targeted by a thief carrying a knife, has started a petition among shopkeepers calling for the police to do more to help them in the face of rising crime. “I don’t know what the world is coming to,” he said. “It’s happening too often.”
Now, I don’t believe possession of either a chisel or a baseball bat is specifically illegal, but I doubt that the assailant was planning to do some artistic sculpture with it in his free time. I suppose that he believed the presence of a nice, sharp chisel would cow most shopkeepers. I imagine that the baseball bat surprised him every bit as much as Mrs. Freke’s sword surprised her attackers.
I found one last story involving a crime intervention by a citizen wielding a weapon. This one, in which blind 62 year-old Thomas O’Connor stabbed 23 year-old Lee Kelso, who died from his wounds. I spent a considerable amount of time searching for self-defense stories, but these were the only four I found. In none of these cases were the defenders charged with excessive use of force, and only one with possession of prohibited “offensive weapons,” but the case of Mr. O’Connor, there was a thorough seven week murder investigation after which the Crown determined “it would not be in the public interest for him to stand trial.” Or, as one barrister put it “no jury would convict the frail man.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of his act, wouldn’t you say?
During the stabbing investigation, the police found that the O’Connor’s front door, which was equipped with “a Yale lock, two bolts and a security chain,” had been “hit with such force it was off its hinges and the door frame had also become dislodged.” It seems that the O’Connor’s, who “had turned their home into a fortress because of previous trouble and break-ins,” equipped it with “a security camera linked to a video recorder fitted to the rear of the house, a security light at the front and an alarm.” This was before Mr. Kelso’s attack. I find it odd, though, that Mr. O’Connor, his wife, children, and grandchildren (who didn’t all live in the same home) had to move to away secretly to undisclosed locations after the incident. It seems The O’Connor home was “torched in a suspected revenge attack” shortly after the stabbing.
But Tim is correct. It is still legal for a UK subject to defend themselves with a weapon, apparently as long as the weapon is legal and the defense takes place inside the home or business of the crime victim. (Outside the home or place of business, you apparently have to take your chances.)
It just seems to be a very rare occurrence, and possibly fraught with danger from forces other than the government, too. Knowing that defending yourself might mean having your home firebombed would be off-putting to most people, I think. (There are numerous cases of witness intimidation in England by thugs who fear little from the law and less from their victims.
As to the more recent accusation, let me stop “flitting around like a butterfly” and address the “access to weapons” question. I wrote earlier:
(D)isarming the law abiding it leaves them essentially defenseless against violent criminals, armed or not. All the criminal need be is physically superior to his victim, or (should he desire) the criminal can be armed, knowing almost as a certainty that his victim won’t be. If criminals need not fear effective resistance then they will be emboldened. I pointed to England’s experience with violent crime over the course of the 20th Century, noting that the real upswing in violent crime began just shortly after passage of the law that made illlegal carry of any weapon for defense on the grounds that there are no “defensive” weapons for the general public, only “offensive” weapons by definition.
(I am quite aware of the fallacy of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument, but I have seen no other factor to explain the apparent coincidence.) In the case of Nicholas Ashworth, his assailant had a knife, Mr. Ashworth had (illegal) tear gas. In the case of Mrs. Freke, she had a (still legal) sword against two physically superior, but unarmed youths. In the case of Mr. Webster, he had a baseball bat against two assailants, one armed with a chisel. In the case of Mr. O’Connor, he had a knife of some kind against a younger, physically superior assailant. In each of these cases the victim was physically inferior to the attacker or attackers. In half the cases the attacker or attackers were also armed. It would seem that my assertion is correct. In any assault occurring outside of a home or business, the attacker is almost guaranteed that his victim will be unarmed. In most assaults occurring IN a home or business, the type of weapons available to the victim are severely limited.
I wrote in the comments to Tim’s original post:
In the context of resistance to crime, all a violent criminal need do in order to nearly guarantee himself success is to select a victim that is his physical inferior, or to overwhelm his victim with numbers. If he wants to make it even easier all he needs to do is have a weapon, since his victim will almost certainly not have one and weapons are readily available in spite of the laws against them.
Tim puts much stock in criminologist Gary Kleck’s “fallacy of the ‘overmotivated criminal'” when it comes to weapon use by criminals. Tim quotes Kleck from his 1997 book Targeting Guns:
Like noncriminals, however, criminals do many things that are casually or only weakly motivated. Indeed, much crime is impulsive or opportunistic, with criminals committing some crimes only if it requires little effort and entails little risk. Gun control is less likely to have much effect on crime committed by criminals with the strongest and most persistent motivation to commit crimes, such as drug dealers, emotionally disturbed mass murderers, professional hit men, terrorists, or political assassins. However, it is not all impossible for crime prevention efforts to be achieved among the more weakly or temporarily motivated criminals who make up the large part of the active offender population.
I have not read this work, so I don’t know the context from which this quote was taken, but bear in mind that Kleck is himself a gun-control skeptic. Quoted from a 1994 Tennessee Law Review article at Guncite:
Up until about 1976 or so, there was little reliable scholarly information on the link between violence and weaponry. Consequently, everyone, scholars included, was free to believe whatever they liked about guns and gun control. There was no scientific evidence to interfere with the free play of personal bias. It was easy to be a “true believer” in the advisability of gun control and the uniformly detrimental effects of gun availability (or the opposite positions) because there was so little relevant information to shake one’s faith. When I began my research on guns in 1976, like most academics, I was a believer in the “anti-gun” thesis, i.e. the idea that gun availability has a net positive effect on the frequency and/or seriousness of violent acts. It seemed then like self-evident common sense which hardly needed to be empirically tested. However, as a modest body of reliable evidence (and an enormous body of not-so-reliable evidence) accumulated, many of the most able specialists in this area shifted from the “anti-gun” position to a more skeptical stance, in which it was negatively argued that the best available evidence does not convincingly or consistently support the anti-gun position. This is not the same as saying we know the anti-gun position to be wrong, but rather that there is no strong case for it being correct. The most prominent representatives of the skeptic position would be James Wright and Peter Rossi, authors of the best scholarly review of the literature.
[Subsequent research] has caused me to move beyond even the skeptic position. I now believe that the best currently available evidence, imperfect though it is (and must always be), indicates that general gun availability has no measurable net positive effect on rates of homicide, suicide, robbery, assault, rape, or burglary in the U[nited] S[tates]. This is not the same as saying gun availability has no effects on violence–it has many effects on the likelihood of attack, injury, death, and crime completion, but these effects work in both violence-increasing and violence-decreasing directions, with the effects largely canceling out. For example, when aggressors have guns, they are (1) less likely to physically attack their victims, (2) less likely to injure the victim given an attack, but (3) more likely to kill the victim, given an injury. Further, when victims have guns, it is less likely aggressors will attack or injure them and less likely they will lose property in a robbery. At the aggregate level, in both the best available time series and cross-sectional studies, the overall net effect of gun availability on total rates of violence is not significantly different from zero. The positive associations often found between aggregate levels of violence and gun ownership appear to be primarily due to violence increasing gun ownership, rather than the reverse. Gun availability does affect the rates of gun violence (e.g. the gun homicide rate, gun suicide rate, gun robbery rate) and the fraction of violent acts which involve guns (e.g. the percent of homicides, suicides or robberies committed with guns); it just does not affect total rates of violence (total homicide rate, total suicide rate, total robbery rate, etc.).
This would seem to run counter to Tim’s interpretation.
However, Tim puts too much emphasis on gun armed criminals. He seems, in fact, fixated on firearms, and extends that fixation to me and other “gullible gunners.” He often makes reference to guns to the exclusion of all other weapons:
Kevin, you seem to be equating self defence with guns. This is doubly wrong. First, guns are far more frequently used for offensive purposes than for defensive ones. And second, guns are not the only means for self defence.
Even if there are some rare situations where a gun is the only possible means for defence, it does not make the statement that “self defense in the UK is illegal”, since that is a general statement describing all situations.
He also discusses the efficacy of weapon control legislation producing somehow a level playing field, but in the context of guns, not other weapons:
1. Using a weapon is not the only way to defend yourself.
2. If the law disarms attackers, then it can make self defence possible where it would have been impossible if the attacker was armed.
1. Attacker has a gun. Defender does not.
2. Attacker does not have a gun. Defender doesn’t either.
Self defence is possible in the second scenario while it isn’t in the first one. Is that clear now?
Actually, no, it’s not. Reality is a bit more complex than that. But here is where the difference in the two philosophies is most stark, and where the cracks in the philosophy he seems to support begin to become apparent.
The philosophy I originally attributed to Tim’s side of the argument (that he objected to) I originally phrased as follows:
That seemed to fit Tim’s position, but I’ve given the subject a considerable amount of thought in the last week or so, and have concluded that I was, in fact, in error on this point. The actual philosophy, I believe, is more accurately described thus:
Weapons cause or at least augment violence.
Elimination of weapons will reduce or eliminate violence.
Since firearms are the most effective personal weapons available, they must, of course, be eliminated first, and this is the path England took starting in 1920. As of now, all semi-automatic long guns are banned, there are severe legal restrictions on all other long guns, all handguns are banned, and there is strong evidence the “next step” involves strict licensing or banning of air weapons and even toy guns. There are severe restrictions on the ownership and possession of knives, but not yet swords. (Mrs. Freke may keep hers for the time being.) It is illegal to carry any weapon the State considers offensive (and the list is long), and has been since 1953. Use of a weapon in self-defense is restricted to a reasonable response level by a law passed in 1967.
This philosophy on violence is usually based on the belief that all human life is precious, and that – at least in the case of robbery – no amount of property is worth a human life. Sounds good, but the logic is specious. I will illustrate this in a moment.
The philosphy that I ascribe to does not put the onus on the weapon, but on the actor. It is best described thus:
The proper response to a threat of violence is the promise of equal or overwhelming violence in return.
The proper response to a violent attack is equal or overwhelming violence until the threat ceases.
(Bear in mind that my philosophy recognizes that sometimes the proper response is “cover your ass” because responding violently isn’t an option at the time.)
The logic of “no amount of property is worth a human life” is specious (defined having deceptive attraction or allure) because the person trying to take your property is threatening you with bodily harm in order to accomplish his goal. The implied exchange is “I won’t hurt you if you let me take your property.” Why is “I won’t inflict severe bodily harm or death if you cease and desist” an incorrect response? Criminals do not have the right to put their victims in fear of bodily harm or death – they’re the instigators. If stealing holds no risk to the thief, what incentive exists to inhibit the behavior? If those willing to break the social restrictions against threatening or inflicting violence are not opposed, why should we be surprised to see the level of violence rise? Criminals are generally stupid, but even the dim understand that elementary cost-benefit analysis.
England’s law seems to dimly recognize this philosophy, as the book excerpts provided by Tim indicate. The law allows for the use of (ill-defined “reasonable”) force not only in self defense but also in the prevention of crime. But the restrictions are byzantine. Read all four pages in Tim’s link and tell me that English law on this topic makes any sense whatsoever. It’s the worst of both worlds, sort of. The attacker has all the advantages, the victim all the restrictions.
It doesn’t matter
to Tim that after general weapon restrictions were implemented in England, overall violent crime went up. The philosophy cannot be wrong. Results contrary to the theory merely indicate that the solution wasn’t implemented properly. Do it some more, only harder.
It doesn’t matter
to Tim that handgun crime went up in England after the handgun ban. The philosophy cannot be wrong. Results contrary to the theory merely indicate that the solution wasn’t implemented properly. Do it some more, only harder.
It doesn’t matter
to Tim that eighty years of ever-increasing restrictions on weapons and self-defense has not only not made England safer, it hasn’t prevented England from becoming the most criminally violent nation in the industrialized world. The philosophy cannot be wrong. Do it some more only HARDER.
It doesn’t matter
to Tim that, while the stock of private firearms in the U.S. grows by three million a year, uncontrolled, unlicensed, and unregistered, violent crime has declined ten years running. The philosophy CANNOT BE WRONG.
It doesn’t matter
to Tim that taking firearms away from the law abiding makes them nearly powerless against those willing to use violence against them. Women, the elderly, the physically disabled are all at a disadvantage against the youthful, strong, and predatory. They don’t NEED a gun.
If the law disarms attackers, then it can make self defence possible where it would have been impossible if the attacker was armed.
But the law doesn’t disarm attackers. It disarms their victims. The attackers have the choice to be armed or not. The State denies that choice to the victims, and so doing makes their victimization easier.
Now, which philosophy makes more sense? And who sees the forest, and not just the trees?
UPDATE, 4/30: By coincidence, Ravenwood links to a Guardian story printed yesterday that reports:
Violent crime rose 11% in the final three months of 2003 compared with the same period in 2002, Home Office figures revealed today.
Latest figures show 271,500 incidents of violent crime were recorded by police in England and Wales from October to December 2003.
More serious violent crimes such as murder and serious wounding rose by 13%, while “less serious” violent crime such as assaults increased 21% period-on-period to 106,000 incidents. The number of sexual offences rose 6% to 12,600 while robberies fell 7% to 23,900.
I also found this piece in the Manchester News. Just read it, and ponder the philosophy behind the idea.
Oh hell, here’s another one:.
Teenager held over robberies
A 16-year-old boy has been remanded in custody following two robberies in Manchester.
The boy, from Levenshulme, is charged on two counts of robbery and two counts of kidnap.
It follows two incidents in Fallowfield where a 21-year-old student then a 32-year-old man were forced into an alleyway by a number of men and robbed of their wallets, cash cards and phones.
No mention of any weapons, but what is an unarmed man to do when confronted by “a number of men” who are threatening bodily harm if he doesn’t give up his valuables? What risk did these robbers face? They knew their victims couldn’t effectively resist.
Again I ask: How is a woman to exercise her presumed inherent right to lethal force against a rapist if she’s denied any means with which to do so? And how is a citizen to exercise his presumed right to resist crime if he is denied any means with which to do so? How does one effectively resist someone larger and stronger unarmed? How does one effectively resist multiple attackers unarmed?
Or, as commenter Sarah rephrased Tim: If the law disarms citizens, then it can make self defence impossible where it would have been possible if the citizen was armed.
UPDATE, 5/3: Tim responds. My response is the first comment to that post.
FURTHER UPDATE: I’ve slightly edited to the post to hopefully mollify Tim. I’ve stricken out some attributions that Tim holds are in error.