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Friday, August 01, 2003
Tony Martin

Tony Martin recently came out of prison.
There was a queasy symmetry about the prison releases over the weekend of the shotgun farmer, Tony Martin, and the shot burglar, Brendan Fearon. Together their two faces represented a kind of nightmare of modern Britain. The one, the recidivist career criminal, with his fag-lipped expression of crafty stupidity - and the other, brick-coloured, grim and defiant in the face of his own responsibility for a kid's death. This was less like a couple of paroles and more like the reopening of some societal Pandora's box.
I had the irreverent thought that Fearon looked remarkably like Nick Cotton but you might be safer, instead of following that idea, reading the rest of the article here. For the sake of Martian readers, Tony Martin shot two burglars in his remote farmhouse. Fearon was one; the other, Fred Barras, died. Nick Cotton is a nasty character in the soap opera 'Eastenders' (I think).

Tony Martin's house had been broken into many times. The police had been 'unresponsive' and he took matters into his own hands, using an illegally held, pump-action shotgun. The lad who died was shot in the back. The majority of people think he was wrongly jailed.

The law permits the use of reasonable force in defending one's property; the jury in Martin's case clearly thought that he had exceeded this limit. They were probably right. However, let's consider the matter more generally.

Airstrip One is fortunate enough not to have a gun culture. Our murder rate is about 100 per year whereas it's about 20,000 in the USA. Availability of guns must have something to do with it. On the other hand, our burglary rate is double that in the US. The gun lobby maintains that gun ownership deters burglars. They are indubitably correct. Those who argue that most of the victims are criminals, anyway, overlook other significant categories: the victims of accidents and unjustifiable homicides, not to mention ‘nutcase’ massacres like Dunblane & Columbine..

Many years ago, a US policeman was cleaning his gun. He dropped it; the gun went off. Tragically, the bullet hit and killed his young daughter coming along the road. Worth it?

In 1992, a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Yoshihiro Hattori, was shot and killed by a nervous householder who mistook him for an intruder. Costumed for a Halloween party, the teenager intended only to ask for directions. The man who shot him, a meat-cutter named Rodney Peairs, was acquitted of manslaughter after defence attorneys argued that he was legally defending his home. That’s Louisiana justice...

Again many years ago, two people of my acquaintance were on holiday in the USA. One of them knocked on the wrong door of a motel at which the pair were staying. The occupant fired through the door without opening it. When I last heard, the victim was in a wheelchair. I do not know what happened to the gunman. Not a good example of responsible gun ownership.

We cannot legislate mistakes out of existence, even less can we prevent attacks by the deranged. What we have done, though, is make it more difficult to kill people - gun ownership is severely restricted. We also require high levels of proof to justify killing. So, even if it means more burglaries the resulting fewer murders, accidental and mistaken shootings, provide a net benefit. Our laws on the defence of property must therefore remain unchanged. Otherwise, in short, we value property above life.

On balance, Airstrip One has got it right - the defence of homicide in protecting property has too big a down side to be supportable. As for the US situation, in the words of the apocryphal Irishman 'I wouldn't start from there'.

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