Property Rights? The Path We Are On

Earlier this month, I posted a piece on the riots in Britain, drawing attention initially to a report on one London neighborhood in which the rioters were stopped in their tracks by “hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish men, many armed with broken billard cues,” who “poured into the streets to protect their business and homes from the kind of mayhem that was laying waste to other parts of London”; and then noting the fact that the use of force to defend property was, in fact, illegal in Britain, that these men risked being arrested and sent to prison, and that others in the recent past had suffered that for killing or physically harming burglars and the like.

In that post, I cited Joyce Lee Malcolm’s fine study Guns and Violence: The English Experience, which was published by Harvard University Press seven years ago, and I suggested that it ought to be “force-fed to every member of Parliament.” Someone at The Wall Street Journal caught on, and a few days later Joyce published a piece there entitled The Soft-on-Crime Roots of British Disorder. It is well worth reading. Among other things, this is what she said:

Great Britain’s leniency began in the 1950s, with a policy that only under extraordinary circumstances would anyone under 17 be sent to prison. This was meant to rehabilitate young offenders. But the alternative to incarceration has been simply to warn them to behave, maybe require community service, and return them to the streets. There has been justifiable concern about causes of crime such as poverty and unemployment, but little admission that some individuals prefer theft to work and that deterrence must be taken seriously.

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.

Meanwhile, the cost of criminal justice has convinced British governments to shorten the sentences of adult criminals, even those guilty of violent crimes, and to release them when they have served half of their sentence. Police have been instructed by the British Home Office to let burglars and first-time offenders who confess to any of some 60 crimes—ranging from assault and arson to sex with an underage girl—off with a caution. That means no jail time, no fine, no community service, no court appearance.

In 2009, 70% of apprehended burglars avoided prison, according to British Ministry of Justice figures. The same year, 20,000 young offenders were electronically tagged and sent home, a 40% increase in the number of people tagged over three years.

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.

As I argued in my earlier post, we are better off in the US. Much to the consternation of the liberals in our midst we actually incarcerate criminals, and, lo and behold, when we started doing that on a large scale, crime went down dramatically. It is worth noting that, the Great Recession notwithstanding, the crime rate is still falling.

But we, too, are going soft, and here is a sign of the times.  On Friday, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado carried this report.  In response to a wrongful-death suit, a jury in El Paso, Colorado awarded $300,000 to the three-year-old daughter of a young man who was killed in 2009 while burglarizing a used-car lot there.  The owner of the lot, Johan Milanovic, and two of his relatives, who were helping him guard his property were, we are told, “painted as vigilantes who plotted a deadly ambush rather than let authorities deal with a string of recent burglaries” – just as they would have been in Britain.

The three men were accused of keeping an armed vigil over the auto lot and firing on the first burglars they saw. The men were angry over a series of thefts that began when someone broke in a week earlier and stole keys to customers’ automobiles as well as keys to buildings on the property.

Car stereos were taken in the days that followed, according to testimony.

Under Colorado’s self-defense laws, the use of deadly force is justified only under the “reasonable belief” that it’s necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death. The jury found that none of the men had a legitimate claim of self-defense.

Property rights are not a lawful defense for using deadly force in Colorado, and the state’s so-called Make My Day law, which sets lower standard for using force, applies to households, not businesses.

The “victim” – which is to say, the criminal – and his accomplice were high on metamphetamine and reportedly were in search of money to buy more drugs. The former had knives in his pocket and another strapped to his ankle, but the police report claimed that he “never posed a threat” to Milanovic and his relatives.

As I said in my earlier post, in times like these, it is useful to remember the words of John Adams: “We talk of liberty and property, but, if we cut up the law of self-defence, we cut up the foundation of both. . . . If a robber meets me in the street, and commands me to surrender my purse, I have a right to kill him without asking questions.” We have come a long way since John Adams’ day.

ADDENDUM: Here is an important article on a puzzle, addressing the question why it is the case, if poverty is the chief cause of crime, that the crime rate keeps going down, massive unemployment nontwithstanding.

  1. SteveS

    Dr Rahe, do the elected officials in Britain enjoy the same protection of person and property that ours do?

    Would Jared Lee Loughner been able to sue those who tackled him to the ground and kept him from further atrocities in London?

    Seriously Dr Rahe, is it the utopian fallacy that drives such ridiculous laws or is it our arrogance in thinking we have replaced God with ourselves upon the throne.

  2. Underground Conservative

    I’m absolutely speechless after reading the section describing the UK. What I’d be interested to know is how many of the details of these laws were actually debated in Parliament and how many of them have simply been hijacked by every local PC-frenzied police department or unelected bureaucrats in the various ministries. If laws like these were discussed deeply in Parliament, I can’t even imagine how the typically raucous debates could ever let such idiocy pass muster.  Sometimes, I’m just too naive, perhaps.

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Dave Molinari: I’m absolutely speechless after reading the section describing the UK. What I’d be interested to know is how many of the details of these laws were actually debated in Parliament and how many of them have simply been hijacked by every local PC-frenzied police department or unelected bureaucrats in the various ministries. If laws like these were discussed deeply in Parliament, I can’t even imagine how the typically raucous debates could ever let such idiocy pass muster.  Sometimes, I’m just too naive, perhaps. · Aug 28 at 8:55am

    They were, alas, thoroughly discussed. The political class in Britain — Tories, Liberals, Labour — were all agreed. Some of this developed under Margaret Thatcher.

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Stephen S.: Dr Rahe, do the elected officials in Britain enjoy the same protection of person and property that ours do?

    Would Jared Lee Loughner been able to sue those who tackled him to the ground and kept him from further atrocities in London?

    Seriously Dr Rahe, is it the utopian fallacy that drives such ridiculous laws or is it our arrogance in thinking we have replaced God with ourselves upon the throne. · Aug 28 at 8:53am

    At the heart of this lies the conviction that property is theft, that it is profoundly unjust that some have property and that others do not, and that persons, not property, deserve the protection of the law. As the riots in Britain demonstrated, if one does not protect property, persons will be endangered as well. The key to all of this is compassion, sympathy for those who suffer even if their suffering is self-inflicted, and a complete lack of sympathy for those who have worked hard, saved, and built a business. Compassion is a passion. It is unreasoning and often unreasonable.

  5. The Mugwump

    Mushy thinking on issues like this makes me furious.  Claiming that “poverty causes crime” is like saying military aggression is caused by a failure to communicate.  As soon as one sets foot on this path, the concept of deterrence is neutered.  Ordinary human experience should inform us that violence is kept in check by the threat of overwhelming counter-violence.  As true on a child’s playground as it is on the front lines between military belligerents.  The sad truth is that liberals are cowards both physically and morally.  The state can compensate for physical cowardice in its citizenry, but moral cowardice can destroy a civilization.         

  6. SteveS

    So the real crime is that one is born with more than another. Astounding! 

    Do they even consider for a moment that the very paper their laws are written on did not appear from the ether but needed to be produced.

    Will the ruling class feel as positive to ensure all have an equal share when the rioters come to claim their right to own the elected officials power to rule. 

  7. Nick Stuart

    No Matter How Loud I Shout is a discussion of the juvenile justice system in California. One of the “takeaways” you will have after reading it is that the juvenile justice system fails to punish crimes committed by a juvenile (with even the mildest of sanctions like probation that is actually enforced), until the juvenile commits a crime so heinous (aggravated murder usually) and notorious that it cannot be overlooked. The juvenile is then treated as an adult and locked up (for a while anyway).

    We’re travelling in the same direction as Britain. The velocity is faster under liberal regimes, slower under conservative, but that’s where we’re headed.

  8. katievs

    I remember reading a story about a homeowner in England who was sued by a would-be robber, who had injured himself on barbed wire the homeowner put around his property after a series of break-ins.  

    The town ordered the homeowner to remove the barbed wire lest it cause further injuries to thieves.

    Who can live in such a place?

    Contrast with an experience Mark Steyn had one of his first nights at his New Hampshire homestead.  He thought he heard a prowler and, alarmed, called the local police.  They told him, “You’ll have to take him out yourself, we’ll never get there in time to be any use.”

    Mark describes how startling this was to his European-bred sensibilities. “I’m supposed to take him out myself?!”

  9. SteveS
    Nick Stuart: No Matter How Loud I Shout is a discussion of the juvenile justice system in California. One of the “takeaways” you will have after reading it is that the juvenile justice system fails to punish crimes committed by a juvenile (with even the mildest of sanctions like probation that is actually enforced), until the juvenile commits a crime so heinous (aggravated murder usually) and notorious that it cannot be overlooked. The juvenile is then treated as an adult and locked up (for a while anyway).

    We’re travelling in the same direction as Britain. The velocity is faster under liberal regimes, slower under conservative, but that’s where we’re headed. · Aug 28 at 9:55am

    When I was a kid my parents punished (spanked) me consistently for a deliberate challenge of their authority. I always respected that benchmark and have never complained when punished for violating anyone else’s’ right to that authority over mine. 

    Punishment should always be firm, fair, consistent and swift which almost never builds animosity to the one dispensing it.

  10. Mel Foil

    In England, I think the only case in which a homeowner can resist a burglary with deadly force is if the burglar’s actions serve to disrupt a gay sex act between the homeowner and a third person. In that case, the burglary can be classified as an anti-gay hate crime, and therefore sufficiently heinous to provoke deadly force. That’s provided that the burglar is non-Muslim. If the burglar is Muslim, then victimhood status is reversed and the homeowner is at fault. (I’m kidding, but it would not surprise me if I got it right.)

  11. The King Prawn

    “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” John Locke, 2nd Treatise § 27.

    The British might as well dig up his bones and ship them over here for they obviously want no part of him.

  12. raycon and lindacon

    Here in Colorado Springs some citizens have fixed the problem.  To our west is Rampart Range Road, and to our east are the towns of Peyton and Calhan.  Periodically bodies are found wrapped in plastic and dumped on the roadsides.

    Guess where they come from?  Beats lawsuits and charges from the guys who carry clipboards and take crime reports after you have been assaulted.  Mr. Shotgun is my friend.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Mark Wilson: To tie this post in with Professor Groseclose’s post about media bias through fact inclusion and omission, check out this leftwing spin on the plight of Tony Martin. · Aug 28 at 12:50pm

    Illuminating, isn’t it?

  14. Mimi

    UK prisons have never been fuller. Even so, plenty of criminals are on the streets, new offenders as well as repeat offenders.  Government is pressurized to cut back expenditure and only minimally reduce entitlement spending.  While there are plenty of panels and organizations that seek to protect the rights of criminals, as has been pointed out, and while fewer criminals are convicted because of it, still the number of criminals serving time for petty and violent crime is too great for the number of existing prisons.  Way too much crime is happening on the streets at the same time as prisons are full to bursting.

    When it looked like Cardiff might see a few riots, police from smaller cities and towns were pulled to go there, leaving the residents in these smaller cities and towns frightened of the local louts on the streets.  The local louts didn’t destroy property on those evenings, as it turned out.  Maybe they were in Cardiff, lol!  My Welsh family there, decent people, are resigned to their lives getting worse and worse if proposed police cuts of 15% take place. 

    Austerity and few jobs available make a bad situation worse.

  15. Roberto
    raycon: Here in Colorado Springs some citizens have fixed the problem.· Aug 28 at 2:00pm

    When the government ceases to be our servant but becomes our persecutor men seek their own remedies. You reveal a disturbing vision of our near future sir. 

  16. CoolHand
    Roberto

    When the government ceases to be our servant but becomes our persecutor men seek their own remedies. You reveal a disturbing vision of our near future sir.  · Aug 28 at 5:00pm

    I would only find it disturbing if I were in the business of burgling.

    Sad is perhaps a better term, for the idea that our entire justice system has deteriorated to the point that one must simply kill wrongdoers and dump them in the ditch to get any sort of satisfaction is a sorrow filled one indeed.

    Shoot, shovel, and shut up carries the day.  CSI Miami notwithstanding.

  17. Roberto
    Stephen S.: So the real crime is that one is born with more than another. Astounding!  · Aug 28 at 9:30am

    Worse than that even, the real crime is simply to have more than another. Unless of course one happens to be a member of the Politburo, excuse me Parliament. 

  18. Charles Gordon

    Of the modern political theories, the most antipodal to our own is communism, or the theoretical abolishment of private property rights.

    Leftists follow the arc of subversion. They started out deicidal, postulating the rule of man prevails over the power of the Almighty. They then breach the sanctity of traditions that have held our Western Judeo-Christian way of life together. Now, they violate our individual conscious as a means to thwart our sense of responsibility for our own for self-defense.

    By putting us in a state of such vulnerability, no religion, no reminders of a past out of their control, no property in the form of personal possessions, leftist political theory wants to make us believe that our only protection is submission to government.

    When they plea for cooperation among all, they enact our subjugation to the powerful rule of a few. Property is the last barrier between them and us. There is not enough room for both big government and private property. Government does not produce, it only consumes. What it can’t take from us in taxes, it takes from the future in the form of debt. We must slay Leviathan.

    Tea part movement: Faster please.

  19. Mark Wilson

    To tie this post in with Professor Groseclose’s post about media bias through fact inclusion and omission, check out this leftwing spin on the plight of Tony Martin.