Zimmerman/Martin and the Immorality of self-defence

For most of British history, Britons, like Americans today, could decide whether or not to carry a gun. Now there is a huge gulf on what self-defence means

Danny Nightingale a convicted man
Charles Crawford
On 27 July 2013 09:56

Buried deep in the judge’s sentencing explanation in the Danny Nightingale case (a  former  SAS sniper sentenced to two years’ suspended prison sentence for possessing a Glock pistol and 300 rounds of ammunition) is this astonishing observation:

"It is because the unlawful possession of a firearm endangers society that even where mitigation appears very strong significant sentences are still appropriate.

"There are many examples of such cases. For instance in 2006 a defendant called Blackall had been shot and rendered a paraplegic by an unknown gunman who was never identified. On a further occasion a man knocked at the defendant’s front door and put a gun to his head. He reported this to the police but no one was apprehended.

"He kept a loaded revolver thereafter for his own protection. Four months later the police came to his house and he told them where his gun was. His exceptional circumstances were taken into account to reduce the sentence of five years to three years imprisonment."

Do our eyes deceive us? Is it true that a fellow citizen rendered paraplegic by an unknown gunman was sent to prison for ‘only’ three years for owning a gun for self-protection?

Seems so. Blackstone’s Criminal Practice Bulletin (April, 2006) tells us what is happening:

"The Firearms Act is unique in setting a minimum sentence for the first, rather than a repeat offence … and in allowing no reduction in sentence for a plea of guilty, no matter how timely that plea may have been."

Meanwhile a desperate piece in the New Statesman by Jacob Turner strains every sinew to link the Zimmerman case in the USA with the UK’s self-defence laws:

"In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, the United States Attorney General Eric Holder called into question “laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods”. The veteran campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton went as far as to describe the stand your ground law, which exists in over 30 States as the “worst violation of civil rights” in America. If the dry words of the legal text books do not provide enough context, perhaps the fact that this law is supported strongly by the National Rifle Association will."

Calm down, Jacob. Please explain to us why notorious swivelly-eyed, foam-fleck’d NRA member Barack Hussein Obama cheerily supported the Stand Your Ground law in Illinois.

He goes on to argue that the changes in the UK’s self defence laws will make ‘vigilantism’  more likely:

"One recent amendment provides that a possibility that a defendant could have retreated is to be as a factor to be taken into account in deciding whether force was reasonable, rather than as giving rise to a duty to retreat – in other words, this is a statutory endorsement of the stand your ground law…

"It appears that some level of disproportionate force will be available to householders, but precisely what degree is entirely unclear. How does one distinguish what is merely disproportionate from grossly disproportionate?"

There is nothing whatever difficult here. If a jury can be trusted to work out what is a ‘reasonable’ response by a person scared out of his or her wits by an illegal intruder, that jury can work out what is a ‘grossly disproportionate’ response.

These very different cases are all about the way the state tries to control the most basic human right of all, the right to defend oneself. In the United States, citizens can choose for themselves whether they want to carry a gun. Millions do. For most of British history that has been the case too here: common law championed a citizen’s “natural right of resistance and self-preservation”.

But in the past 110 years that British right has been whittled away to the insane if not explicitly evil point where a paraplegic person whose own life has been ruined by a gunman whom the state has failed to catch is himself imprisoned simply for owning a gun for self-protection.

That New Statesman piece promotes the collectivist idea that the state bears down upon citizens as the supreme unique arbiter of basic morality, as opposed to setting some general rules within which citizens work out those ideas for themselves. Here in the UK it is no surprise that the Leftist end of the spectrum opposes letting citizens themselves decide and wants the state to micro-manage perilous situations.

One extreme version of this erodes a citizen’s right to self-defence to the point of making it ‘reasonable’ (and therefore in effect required) to flee or retreat if attacked, rather than use whatever force it takes to resist an attacker. By contrast we see a much more robust tradition in the United States, as an early US court case ruled:

“The tendency of the American mind seems to be very strongly against the enforcement of any rule which requires a person to flee when assailed, to avoid chastisement or even to save a human life.”

Andrew Branca powerfully makes the societal - and moral - case for Stand Your Ground:

"A criminal who knows he can seize physical control of his immediate surroundings with no fear of death or grave bodily harm being visited upon him is emboldened to do exactly that. You get more violent aggression from the criminal element of society, not less, when you force law-abiding citizens to cede control to violent criminals

"… the imposition of a generalized duty to retreat made defeating almost any claim of self-defense child’s play for hyper-aggressive prosecutors … in the cool, safe environs of a court room, the Prosecutor will point to ALL of these avenues of escape and demand the jury ask why not one of them were pursued – why they were not even attempted? …Your entire claim of self-defence collapses out from under you, and instead your conduct has become an unlawful killing."

The George Zimmerman case tells us nothing whatever about all these issues. Yes, it’s a tragic case where someone was shot and killed after miscalculations by both people involved. But if you err on the side of upholding the inherent right of citizens to carry guns to protect themselves, some such cases will happen.

If you err in favour of taking away from citizens the means to defend themselves, you get the moral disaster of the Blackall case. And unarmed people hopelessly standing in a London street watching a British soldier being hacked to death. Where was vigilantism when Lee Rigby needed it?

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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