International Papers

The Bash-a-Burglar Law

A British bill could give homeowners more latitude in fighting intruders.

British newspapers have been abuzz over a bill that would ensure the right of homeowners to defend themselves against intruders. Initially opposed as unnecessary by Prime Minister Tony Blair, the proposal won Labor Party backing last week in what has been labeled a campaign tactic. Critics of the premier accuse him of flip-flopping on the issue, which has proved to be a hot topic among many Britons.

“Prime Minister Tony Blair last week said he would consider changing the law to send a clear signal the Government was on the side of the victim rather than the criminal,” the Scotsman reported. “But now the Government’s top lawyer has said burglars as well as their victims must have the right to protection from violence.” The attorney general insisted that “burglars did not ‘lose all rights’ because they were engaged in criminal conduct,” the paper said.

Blair was perceived to be responding to a Tory initiative that has been championed by the Sunday Telegraph. In a leader that made no effort to hide its gloating tone, the paper proclaimed, “We are proud that our campaign to give home-owners the unambiguous right to fight back against illegal intruders has now made a change in the law a real possibility. … In launching his own campaign to change the law, [Tory leader] Michael Howard noted that ’The Sunday Telegraph was the first newspaper to highlight this crucial issue’ and our ‘persistence has been a key factor in forcing Tony Blair’s U-turn.’ “

The campaign to enhance the legal right to fight back against illegal intruders has been strengthened by compelling cases that strike a chord among the British public. In 2000, British farmer Tony Martin became something of a cause célèbre for homeowners’ rights when he was sentenced to five years in prison for the shooting death of a 16-year-old who had broken into his isolated  farm house. * More recently, the brutal murder of a London financier by two teenage intruders in his home has the British public seething and demanding recourse for law-abiding citizens.

Writing in the Times of London, a columnist noted that the government is responding to the public’s fear of crime, which is rising, rather than the actual rate of crime, which is falling. The bill “would amend Section 3 of the 1967 Criminal Law Act so that householders who confront burglars would face prosecution only if the force they used were ‘grossly disproportionate,’ rather than unreasonable,” the columnist wrote. “[H]ow much force is it reasonable to use against an intruder whom one has no reason to believe is armed or is a threat, but of whom nevertheless one is terribly afraid because he could be armed or violent? It isn’t, in other words, self-defense because nobody is attacking you—but it certainly feels like it.”

“Top Cop’s Shock Confession” was the headline in the Sunday Mirror’s article that detailed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s personal experience with burglary. “We believe they fled when my wife opened the front door so I was very near coming face-to-face with them,” he told the paper. “If that had happened I would have used a reasonable level of violence. I would have had a truncheon and would have grabbed what was necessary from around the house to arrest them. They wouldn’t have come back.”

Not everyone is so sure the bill is wise. Writing in the Guardian, a columnist expressed skepticism over whether it is truly needed. “If someone really is attacking your wife and children in your home, almost anything you do is likely to be regarded as reasonable by the courts. Not only that, but if your family is at hazard, you are extremely unlikely to hang around calculating the odds on your prosecution,” the columnist wrote. “[I]f there is someone downstairs late at night, are you to be encouraged to tackle them using violence, emboldened by a change in the law? … [S]hould I … invest in a machete, or a small gun, even? After all, to give me a chance against a dangerous drug-fiend, I must have better weapons than him. And if he did have a knife or something, what would ‘grossly disproportionate’ mean? Hand grenades? A bazooka?”

The Independent reported on the findings of a government study of burglars. Titled Decision-Making by House Burglars: Offenders’ Perspectives,the survey found that most burglars do not fear being caught, and they are not deterred by traditional security equipment. Nearly one-third of burglars in London are under the age of 17, and illegal drug habits are a key motivator for them. The study, which was conducted with no connection to the current legislation, found that the most effective prevention tools is none other than man’s best friend: A barking dog can deter most burglars more than the most sophisticated alarms and neighborhood watch committees.

Correction,Dec. 14, 2004: This article originally referred to British farmer Tony Martin’s arrest as “recent.” In fact, the shooting incident for which he gained notoriety occurred in August 1999. (Return to corrected sentence.)