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A shift in the public mood

Three months ago, I was ‘an extremist’. Today, I am merely ‘controversial’. I have not changed my opinion, but what is called “the public mood” has changed, at least in London.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, interviewed in the Daily Telegraph (free subscription needed), has shifted the official middle-ground:

Householders should be able to use whatever force is necessary to defend their homes against criminals, even if it involves killing the intruder, the country’s most senior police officer said yesterday.

Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said those who defended their families and property should only face prosecution over injuries to intruders in “extreme circumstances”, where they could be shown to have used gratuitous violence.

Curiously the blame for the present insane situation where burglars can sue for damages if they are injured whilst invading a home, and where people can be prosecuted for resisting burglars, seems to lie with the common law and judges.

The solution according to Sir John, is a statute:

There should be a presumption in law “that the person using the force to defend themselves is acting within the law, rather than the other way round”.

Even if a struggle led to the death of an intruder, Sir John added, the law would presume that the person in that house had acted lawfully “and let the law change that presumption because of fact in evidence”.

He said: “The message it sends to the would-be attacker is, `Do not think you can come into people’s homes and people will not defend themselves with the right type of force that’s necessary.’ At the moment it seems it’s the other way round.”

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30 comments to A shift in the public mood

  • J

    Good to see this coming from a policeman.

    As pointed out on the BBC site, there are some interesting legal conundrums here. Firstly, this only applies to householders – what action can guests legally take? What action can strangers take to prevent crimes against other people on the street?

    Secondly, I can see a problem with defining ‘criminal’. How do you make sure the law doesn’t allow a householder to commit any violent act within their own home? It seems that even if we shed the ‘reasonable force’ language, the householder will need some sort of ‘reasonable belief’ that the person they attack was a threat to them or their property. Otherwise you get rather unpleasant ‘pre-emptive strike’ situations.

    But all in all, it’s an encouraging sign.

  • Johnathan

    As I pointed out on exactly the same issue in my post below, I think the fact that police officers have ended up prosecuting homeowners for hitting burglars has demoralised many good coppers. Police ultimately are human beings and realise that the middle classes are getting restive.

    Be interested to see how the government and Tories play this issue.

  • 1327

    This policy would be an ideal one for the Tories to pick up and run with. It appeals to the public and there is no way nu-labour would ever pass anything like it (imagine killing criminals before they can become Cherie’s clients). The trouble is I fear that M.Howard wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole either probably because of the attention it might draw to the totally idiotic gun grabbing laws he introduced when a Home Sec.

  • Neuroto

    Glad to see common sense sprouting in the wintertime, and I’m sad if it’s unnecessary waste of human life which brings it about.

    I have never understood the application, by British courts, of a standard of ‘reasonable force’ to the actions of persons defending themselves, or another person, from an assault. Here in the States, that is a standard applied to those acting under color of authority (the police or sherriffs deputies), not citizens going lawfully about their own business and committing no offense against anyone else.

    But if British authorities shall now weigh the presumption of lawful behavior in favor of the law-abiding, then I say bully for the British, and past time too.

  • It is indeed a good shift in the wind.
    ’tis worth bearing in mind thought that Stevens does not seem to think that householders should be permitted to use the most effective and safest (for the householder!) tool for the job, namely firearms.

    It’s no good having the backing of the law to defend yourself if you are denied the means.

    I may well be capable of grappling with an intruder and coming out on top, but I think I am in somewhat of a minority in this respect. What hope of an elderly individual or slightly built person against a young, fit teenager?

    Come to that, why should the householder be required to put themselves in more danger by coming into close proximity with the intruder?

    Still, nice to see one of the highly political Chief’s coming out with a more positive message.

  • Rachel

    I’m definitely that “older individual”. And I don’t like the idea that I’m the one that has to be behind bars, as the insurance demands.
    Israel got its laws from the English – and this sounds very familiar to me. Any burglar can sue me if he breaks his leg when he jumps off a window, if I happen to scare him.
    We are a democracy, of course, and we have so many criminals in the country that they are very well represented in the Knesset. A short time ago a judge was murdered by a convict on vacation (!) So maybe someone will open their eyes. We have enough shootings as it is, many who know how to use weapons and pay the fee have pistols. But there are many accidents and family quarrels, it’s best when the weapon is hidden. And then when you are awakened by the burglar you have to open your safe to get the pistol? and maybe someone else of the family happens to be in the line of fire? So first of all the “house owners” – and their guests – who can defend themselves shoud be thanked. But don’t suggest getting everyone armed.

  • John K

    In my opinion there is no element of “pre-emptive strike” when dealing with home invaders. They have initiated violence by breaking into your home, you are reacting to the threat they pose. The householder should be under no obligation to retreat inside his or her own home, rather they have the right to defend their life and property.

    With regard to our firearm laws, I have always thought that the only way to get handguns legalised again was by allowing their use for self defence. The trouble with target shooting was that it was a very small sport, only about 50,000 strong, and thus could easily be shafted by politicians of all parties keen to be seen to be “doing something” after Dunblane. The general public could not see why the right of 50,000 people to shoot holes in targets was worth the risk of another such tragedy. If several million people had owned pistols for the important purpose of self defence they would have seen things differently. The main job of pistols has always been as a tool of self defence, the sport of target shooting grew out of this. Once the ownership of pistols for self defence was banned, the sport of pistol shooting was left very exposed.

    I believe that at least until recently about 10,000 of my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland legally owned pistols for self defence, and this was the reason that pistol ownership was not banned in NI in 1997, and this also meant that pistols owned purely for target shooting were not banned either. For one thing the holders of pistols for self defence needed access to ranges to practice.

  • Pete_London

    A welcome statement, notwithstanding the fact that coppers merely uphold the law and have no business shaping it. It’ll come to nothing though; Stephen Pound has just popped up on Sky News, presumably after uploading Blair’s response to his brain:

    What if the homeowner simply doesn’t like the look of the person on his doorstep … blah … blah …

    The public has the right to self defence already but shouldn’t act as executioner … blah … blah …

  • Pete_London

    I forgot to mention that Pound is a Labour MP.

  • Dave F

    It’s anawful tale about the Moncktons. but one that would no longer even merit a large headline here in
    S Africa, where this type of “home invasion” is common and often involves multiple rape as well as brutal assault and/or murder. Homeowners are tortured in the belief that somewhere they must have large treasure troves stashed away, so telling the invaders you don’t actually keep large caches of jewels and cash around the house just earns you worse punishment.

    Many home owners here — of all races — are armed, but all too often they are taken by surprise. Most with kids will keep the gun unloaded and in a locked drawer. Not much help when there is a loud crash and five hopped up, bloodthirsty young men are suddenly in the house and in your face. Few of my friends own up to having guns at all; I don’t but am quite prepared to use knives if I have to. Here, as in Britain, a charge of murder/attempted murder is opened against the successful home defender. It rarely goes to trial, however.

    Convicted killers admit openly that a key reason for the murder of robbery and carjacking victims is simply to ensure there are no witnesses. yet the police advice is to do exactly as you are told by the armed intruder. This is not, I suspect, advice supported by the statistics of survival.

    There is a strong outcry over the determined drive to disarm law-abiding citizens using new gun laws that make it much harder to get a licence. Of course, criminals don’t want licences and usually file off serial numbers as well, so these laws will leave only the ungodly with weapons.

    I respect the right of people like Perry who are ready and willing to keep and use guns if necessary. It’s not for everyone though. And when the criminals are well-armed, and your piece needs fetching and loading …

  • In actuality,we don’t have the right to self defence since reasonable force is such a variable concept as to be impossible to judge.
    The unspeakable Pound is just trivialising the issue,it is not soebodies ugly mug on the doorstep but within the confines of ones home that is the issue.
    Oddly,we don’t have the right to “act as executioner”but the intruder is afforded the opportunity.House breakers are often armed and also carry the tools used to break in,screwdrivers,jemmies,crowbars and even housebricks.
    You can bet that if Pound ever gets burgled there will be a policeman on duty outside his house henceforth

  • andy

    How sad that in such an advanced country as the UK it’s still considered “controversial” to be able to protect your house from intruders.

    Fortunately, I live in the US where people are slightly more rational about this sort of thing (not that there’s no shortage of idiotic bullshit here…).

    I pray for you British that one day people will not be persecuted in your country for excercising their right to self-defense.

    Good luck and godspeed.

  • Bill

    🙂 As soon as I saw the theme of this post I knew some fellow American wouldn’t be able to resist *unintentionally writing a patronizing “sorry we’re better than you” message. Frankly I’m surprised it took until #12. Now I’m more or less supportive of our current firearm policy, but it’d be embarrassing if that was the only explicitly US post on the subject. Good luck, guys.


    *Benefit of the doubt

  • Pete_London


    Agreed that Pound is unspeakable. However my point is that before the day was out he was acting as His Master’s Voice against Sir John Stevens’ obviously sensible view. Its typical Labour rebuttal fare. Expect op-eds and articles in Monday’s Guardian and Independent both trashing Stevens and questioning his sanity.

  • J

    You see, the problem here is that as soon as someone stands up and says something sensible like “let’s get rid of the confusing ‘reasonable force’ language”, someone else stands up and starts talking about gunning people down.

    Out of interest, does anyone have a statistic for the number of times per year firearms are used in self defence in the US? Is it higher or lower than the number of accidenal firearms death/injuries?

  • Ken

    Yes, and getting Pound to be the New Labourite is ideal because it doesn’t actually pin it on a Cabinet minister. I still feel uneasy about the use of guns to shoot to kill burglars, rather than just as a defence mechanism, but Stevens comments today seemed entirely reasonable to me. Of course the burden of self defence falls upon the homeowner; if they want to protect their property rather than just get a conviction, then they will have to be more energetic than may at other times seem “reasonable force”.

    As for the Tories, I doubt they will run with this – although they never cease to amaze me. The thing is, justifying this will a) seem like their usual knee-jerk reactions and b) out-righting (if it is possible!) Blunkett, due to Howard and Davis’s dreadful decision not to oppose Labour more stringently about the attack on civil liberties epitomised by ID cards. I think running with this story is only politically viable if other attacks on civil liberties are opposed; Howard of course doesn’t want to do this. Because he wanted ID cards when there was even less justification than there is for them now.

  • 🙂 As soon as I saw the theme of this post I knew some fellow American wouldn’t be able to resist *unintentionally writing a patronizing “sorry we’re better than you” message.

    I ain’t sorry we’re better than they are. I glory in it. I’m amazed it got so bad even the police are starting to get worried about their own families getting hit with an occupied home robbery.

  • Bill

    re: gun statistics in the US / year

    Accidental Deaths: about 800
    Gun Use for Self-Defense: 100,000-1.5 million

    For reference the US population is about 291 million, and the UK is about 60 million, a factor of roughly 5.

    Probably the quickest comprehensive statistics are available from the US Dept. of Justice in a 1994 study:


    Accidental Gun Deaths in 1994: 1,356
    And this steadily dropping… according to the US Centers for Disease Control it was down to 762 in 2002 (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr53/nvsr53_05acc.pdf)

    It’s harder to find hard numbers for non-fatal accidental firearm injuries, but the DOJ report notes that for every accidental death there are “several accidental shootings that cause serious injury,” so we could go high and say 5,000 accidental firearm injuries per year.

    The lowest number with creditability is about 100,000 / year.

    A FSU criminologist puts it about 1.5 million / year.

    The NRA likes 2.5 million / year

    The DOJ paper favors the low number.
    An FSU response is here:

    Anyway, I think it’s more of a cultural issue than anything. Although one thing I don’t think is picked up on outside of the pro-gun US community is that in literally 99% of cases where a gun is used for self-defense it’s never fired.

  • John Thacker

    Clayton Cramer has a civilian gun self-defense use blog where he links to lots and lots of stories of the use of guns for self-defense. Note that he also includes the stories he can find where a gun was merely brandished, and the criminal ran off rather than be in a confrontation. Browsing it gives some anecdotal evidence that it is quite common– and note that most articles have a statement along the lines that “charges will not be filed, police said.”

    Of course, we elect our sheriffs outside of the big cities, and in the cities our elected officials hire the chiefs of police. Prosecuting self-defense is a good way to lose your job.

  • Sandy P

    Rule – make sure the person dies INSIDE the house, not the outside.

    At least in America, less lawsuit hassle.

  • A fellow here in Denver filed suit against a homeowner when (he claimed) he was shot by the overly agressive fellow while peacefully walking down the alley, minding his own business, at 2AM.
    Suit was dismissed when the police report was introduced, showing that the trail of blood started in the homeowners bedroom.
    As long as the blood trail originates on your property, you are generally in the clear.
    “Make My Day” laws are not a blanket permission to shoot every door-to-door soliciter with a handfull of religious tracts, no matter what the apologists for the criminals say.

  • Tony H

    It’s encouraging, certainly, but my natural scepticism urges caution. Surprisingly, Saturday’s D.Telegraph editorial hits the spot:”..it is disappointing, and perhaps revealing, that (Sir John) should trigger this debate only after a series of particularly gruesome cases of aggravated burglary, and within weeks of his own retirement in January. It would be more reassuring if police officers with an eye on promotion, rather than on retirement, were preapared to challenge the orthodoxy of the past 30 years and speak out in favour of the rights of property owners.”
    Which is the key. Stevens says that other senior police officers feel as he does. I don’t know how many contributors to this blog hold shotgun or firearms certificates, but I and other FAC holders of long standing tend to have extremely jaundiced views of the police, ACPO especially, precisely because the attitudes of the majority do not accord at all with the views just expressed by Stevens. We lost our semi-auto rifles in 1988, and our handguns in ’97, not just because of politicians but by the unceasing anti-gun agitation of the police.
    So when one of them now suggests householders should enjoy a presumption of innocence, while emphasising that he doesn’t see firearms ownership as the key to effective defence (sure, we’ll just go to karate classes instead), one smiles wryly and swallows another anti-cynicism pill…
    As an aside, I agree with John K’s argument. Or should I call him “Steve”..? Forgive me if I’m wrong, John/Steve.

  • Shoot early, shoot often.

  • Slowjoe

    Pound’s constituency is Ealing North, conveniently close to London (just hop onto the Central Line and you are there.)

    Perhaps we should invest in an “Anti-Burglary” candidate in the next election? “Your Pound is their Pound” would be a great slogan. So would “Their Pound of your Flesh”.

    The only account of his remarks I can find is
    China Post

    He’s accused the Commissioner of the Met of, well, read them:

    Stephen Pound, a lawmaker for the governing Labour Party, said Stevens’ remarks encouraged people to be “judge, jury and executioner all in one.”

    Until stupidity like his has consequences, MPs will continue to ignore this issue.

  • ThePresentOccupier

    Shoot early, shoot often.

    Heard that. From a member of SO19.

  • Well, 1327, it seems the Tories have picked it up, but rather half-heartedly.

    One of them was on Newsnight (or was it the Channel 4 News?) last night. When challenged with a question along the lines of, “should a homeowner be able to kill a burglar without asking questions?” the answer was a clear no — that would be “gratuitous violence”.

    Which leaves us where we are now, arguing over semantics.

    The whole discussion seems moot given that we are denied access to the only really effective _means_ of self defence, although I do welcome Sir John’s comments as a step in the right direction, Tony H’s comments notwithstanding.

  • llamas

    I didn’t relaize, when I first saw Sir John Stevens’ remarks reported, that he is shortly to retire as Commisioner of the Met.

    As a sidebar, it is a sorry reflection on the present state of UK power politics that a man in his position can only say what he thinks at a time when he is relatively immune from restribution.

    Coming back to his remarks, I think he hits the nail on the head – whatever force is necessary to defend life or limb against an intruder, with a (rebuttable) presumption that the amount of force used was both necessary and reasonable. This is the essence of typical US state law, as typified by what has been (mistakenly) dubbed the ‘make-my-day’ law of Oklahoma, previously discussed here.

    However, he only touches tangentially on the other side of the coin, which is that the police, the CPS , judges and juries need to prosecute the law in that light. That change of attitude may, in the long run, be much harder to put in place than a change in the black-letter law, And a move to that change of attitude is not being helped by those campaigners who are baying for an ‘any means necessary, no questions asked’ form of statute, which many reasonable people will find very hard to stomach.



  • Tony H

    a move to that change of attitude is not being helped by those campaigners who are baying for an ‘any means necessary, no questions asked’ form of statute, which many reasonable people will find very hard to stomach.

    I think llamas is right, tho’ I’m not sure there are many (at least in the UK) baying for an all-out-blast-’em green light…
    I would like to think the present sorry situation could be addressed by a more liberal, libertarian attitude on the part of legislators, judiciary and police. But I can see a more liberal attitude toward bashing burglars leading to a certain amount of bloodshed – the homeowners’ that is, not the criminals’, to whose welfare I am indifferent. The average householder might not be up to taking on young, fit, violent types, and the sort of impromptu weapons “approved” by the Establishment can easily be countered by the knives etc already carried by criminals. Any increase in bloodshed would lead to a denunciation of the new self-defence regime by the Guardian-reading element – not to calls for superior firepower for householders by legalising firearms for home defence. All the usual crap as attributed to this Pound fellow, mealy-mouthed whining about householders acting as “judge, jury & executioner” etc. In fact – call me paranoid if you will – it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a limited “open season” on burglars declared, only to be revoked (according to plan) because it was leading to blood in the streets, anarchy in the suburbs, gun law “just like America” etc – name your own anti-gun cliche…

  • George L.

    I give up. If you want to refer to home invaders by the misleading and softer term “burglar” , be my guest. Just remember, in the great court of public opinion, where thinking is a mile wide and an inch deep, the words you choose are important. Every astute politician knows that how you “frame” a debate is 99% of the battle.

  • steveH

    Out of interest, does anyone have a statistic for the number of times per year firearms are used in self defence in the US?

    The lowball value has been reported as about 80K-100K/yr. according to the periodic Department of Justice Statistics survey on criminal victimization. That number is almost certainly too low, as it only counts those who report a with-gun self defense event *who have reported being a victim of a crime*. It ignores any self defense where the crime was not carried through to completion.

    Is it higher or lower than the number of accidenal firearms death/injuries?

    Much higher, compared to deaths, which has been in continuous decline since numbers began being tallied in the early 1930s, both in terms of rate per 100K/yr, and in terms of total number. It was about 3K/yr in 1934, and has been at or below 1K/yr for about the last 10 years.

    I have references at home, which would take a bit to dig out from storage…