Last week, Ken Clarke outlined the government's intention to "clarify" the existing legal right to use "reasonable force" against intruders. David Cameron also pledged that the new Justice Bill would "put beyond doubt that homeowners and shopkeepers who use reasonable force will not be prosecuted."
It was an astute tactical move from the Justice Secretary as he attempts to turn around the perception that he's soft on crime, having recently found himself on the front page of the Sun - dressed up as a Teletubby - underneath the headline: "Time For Tubby Bye-Bye".
But let's separate rhetoric from reality. The Crown Prosecution Service clarifies the current legislation, stating that: "you are not expected to make fine judgements over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self defence." Furthermore, it states that if you are in your own home "the law does not require you to wait to be attacked before using defensive force yourself", which might explain why only eleven people have been prosecuted for using force against a burglar in the last ten years. Tony Martin is one of them.
In 1999, two men - Brendan Fearon and Fred Barras - broke into a farmhouse in Norfolk, and were confronted by Martin holding a pump-action Winchester shotgun, which he owned illegally. As they fled, Martin fired shots at them, hitting Fearon in the leg and Barras in the back. Barras, just sixteen, died at the scene and Fearon was sentenced to three years in prison. Despite giving the jury the option of returning a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder, they found Martin guilty of murder by a 10 to 2 majority, and he was handed a life sentence.
Whilst right-wing commentators such as Richard Littlejohn often cite Martin's reduced sentence as some sort of victory for the tabloid press, he was only granted a successful appeal on the grounds that he was found to have paranoid personality disorder.
What's interesting about the Tony Martin case is the way in which columnists such as Littlejohn manufactured a public empathy with Martin, convincing many that his actions were simply what anyone would have done in that situation. Those that haven't been burgled couldn't possibly say how they would react. Rather than the mainstream media encouraging debate and reflection on the issue, their one-sided coverage of the Tony Martin case meant the notion of shooting a burglar as they're running away was perceived as reasonable.
It's irresponsible to encourage anyone to take on a burglar, whilst simultaneously pedaling rhetoric that will surely amount to an increase in cases of armed robbery as burglars seek to defend themselves. It's why so many people in America have a 'panic room'. A reinforced closet is a lot safer than taking on a potentially armed intruder.
Whilst the law already takes into consideration the adrenalin-infused actions of a homeowner in the face of such instances, attack isn't always the best form of defence. If the government aren't going to suggest gathering your family in one room, locking the door and calling the police - safe in the knowledge that you have contents insurance - then I will.
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