When people are told ‘feel free to shoot’, more people get shot

No one actually thinks homeowners should be prosecuted for challenging invaders, but is it responsible to keep telling people to fire at will?

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Any attempt to draw wider lessons from a tragedy inevitably prompts the claim that the events are being politicised. But sometimes the connections are so clear-cut and so important that it can’t be avoided.

Witness the heartbreaking news from America this morning of a father who shot a masked man dead outside his house, believing him to be a burglar, only to discover that the victim was his son. This is so unbearable that one hardly knows how to process it. It also comes shortly after approving headlines over here about a judge who supposedly issued householders who believe they are being burgled a ‘licence to shoot’, and the Lord Chief Justice’s swift hop onto the same bandwagon yesterday.

Now, this story is news precisely because it’s so rare. But it’s also a stark illustration of how terribly final a mistake can be when it is made by someone holding a gun. And it is a reminder of the obvious fact that when people are told that they should feel free to shoot, more people get shot. I’m not saying for a second that the homeowner who feels under threat by an invader should be prosecuted for shooting them. But this was already the legal case before these strongly-worded judicial interventions; the dark hints to the contrary are a myth. Now the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has had the party conference wheeze of making the right to use weapons more explicit, a wholly redundant move: just as the legal change that’s due to come into force in November is merely intended to ‘clarify’ and not change the law, his reported plans to ‘clarify’ it further are just a way of getting in on the popular side of the argument. This is the weird thing: no one actually disagrees about the substance of any of it. The only division is over whether it’s responsible to keep telling people to fire at will.

It’s not as if it’s going to make anyone safer to do so. After all, if people are going to shoot, they would surely do so only under circumstances in which the threat was so obvious and so immediate that the precise nature of the legal situation will be the last thing in their heads. These populist statements don’t do much to make householders who shoot less likely to be prosecuted; they mostly make it more likely that they will shoot in the first place, and more likely that burglars will arm themselves too. They are certainly not developments that will exert any downward pressure on the bodycount.

In the short-term, of course, you can see the benefits for opportunistic politicians and right-wing judges alike. But if more guns start going off in the home, and more people end up shot, the odds on one of the victims being innocent will only shorten. What will the Lord Chief Justice say then?

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