Shooting bad guys should be left to the movies

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The Independent Online

Who (apart from the genuinely good and forgiving) hasn't, in the Hollywood sense, wanted to see the scary man who has raided their homes treated to both barrels from a shotgun? You can imagine him standing there, menacing and mocking, ready to do violence - his face falling only when the gun is produced. Then his eyes bulge comically in terror, and bam! One bad guy down.

Two nights out of seven I wake up and wonder why I am awake. It must have been a noise, the half-memory of which I strain at, trying to judge whether to be alarmed. Was it a soft footfall by the back door, or rather the small crack of jemmied window? If it was either, should I go downstairs to investigate? Should I pick up a weapon of some kind, like a penknife or an antiperspirant aerosol?

In reality, I would never fight a burglar unless I could be certain that he was 13 and small for his age. The one time there was really an intruder in the house, I made a lot of throat-clearing noises until he fled, taking the family stereo with him. But I have always held my manhood cheap that I didn't somehow stop the criminal who violated my home space.

Interviews, conducted in the wake of the trial, with friends and neighbours of Fred Barras, the 16-year-old Newark burglar who was shot in the back by the reclusive Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, revived that feeling. One crack-voiced woman gave her view that Barras's tendency to rob people was normal. "All boys do it these days," she said, complacently. Another argued that, given time, Barras would have grown out of routine criminality. Unlike his accomplice, Brendan Fearon, presumably.

Meanwhile in Norfolk, a mental universe away, petitions are got up and money raised for the inevitable Martin appeal against conviction. "I would have done the same thing," says a neighbour. This, they suggest, is the kind of desperate measure that crime has driven its victims to.

From the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties, the United States seemed to be gripped by a crime epidemic, to which the rational response of the law-abiding was to get their guns and protect themselves. In 1985, Bernhard Goetz became a folk hero when, a passenger on the New York subway, he turned a revolver on four black youths, leaving one, Darrell Cabey, paralysed for life. When Goetz came to trial for attempted murder he was supported by the mayor of New York, Ed Koch. The jury found him not guilty.

A few years later, in the film Falling Down, Michael Douglas sympathetically portrayed a middle-class man, maddened by crime and incivility, who abandons his car in a gridlock and makes his way home on foot, killing a wide variety of low-lives en route. When I saw the film, the audience cheered. Goetz had done it for all of them. If people didn't mess with him, he wouldn't mess with them.

The aftermath of the Martin case reminds me of New York in 1985. Yesterday afternoon, in a Radio 4 phone-in, caller after caller described their fears of being burgled, their lack of faith in the police, and their Martinesque urges. One old man said that, if burgled, he had two options: to call the police (which would "take too long"), or "shoot the intruder". No throat-clearing for him.

Since everything these days is understood in terms of town versus country, the Martin case has been held up as an example of how rural areas are suffering disproportionately from crime. Even in the London Evening Standard, an article yesterday was headlined "Few Londoners understand that in the country, burglars raid homes with impunity". The implication of this discussion has been that crime is worse in rural areas than urban ones, and that, in the absence of sufficient policing, the Martins of this world are not wholly to be condemned for executing a burglar or two.

I think Londoners and city-dwellers understand all too well that many burglars go unpunished. We should: the figures show that rural crime is still substantially lower than urban crime. Which is one reason why townies want to live in villages. The BBC website might opine that "there is evidence that CCTV systems and a more high-profile police presence are driving thieves into the relatively unguarded countryside", but most town-houses are not under CCTV surveillance, and many of us have long ceased to report crimes such as car break-ins. It is far likelier that increased mobility merely means that crime is more fairly shared than once it was.

And if the pontificating about rural crime is exaggerated, so are the benefits of vigilantism. A US policeman recently explained his opposition to child-locks on hand-guns by arguing that they would give a burglar time to fire first. Yet the awful truth is that many more American children are killed by accidents involving firearms in the home than have been assaulted by burglars. I vividly recall the incident a couple of years ago when a young Japanese man was shot dead on a Texan porch on Halloween by the householder. He'd made the mistake of getting lost in his scary "trick or treat" costume and had stopped by to ask directions.

Returning to Goetz - by the time, 10 years later, that the paralysed Cabey brought a civil case against the subway vigilante, the incident looked rather less clear-cut. Goetz had shot Cabey at least once when he was already down, later admitting he'd told him: "You look all right. Here's another." The suspicion, as in the Martin case, was that Goetz was more than prepared for anyone to come messing with him. That, in fact, he was rather looking forward to it.

It was brave of the judge to demand that the charge be murder, despite the evidence that Martin had fired without warning; that he'd done so from 12 feet, into the back of an unarmed man; that he was using an illegally held gun (his previous firearms having been confiscated by the police after an earlier incident) - and brave of the majority of the jury to convict. It was the right verdict.

Back at Newark, however, they were wondering what could be done about the next generation of Fred Barrases. Barras was one of six children brought up by a single mother. He had hardly attended school since he was 12, and was, presumably, virtually uneducated. BBC reporters commented, by way of explanation, that there "was nothing for the local youth to do", save drink, have sex and commit crime.

This, I'm afraid, is rubbish. There are cinemas, pubs, parks and TV sets in Newark. There's even a bloody great river that you could do all kinds of things on. There are bookshops, magazines, ping-pong clubs and a branch of the Young Conservatives. Though boredom is the universal curse of adolescence, crime is not the universal consequence. There was only nothing for Barras to do because there was almost nothing he was able to do.

Which takes us right back to Brown, Blunkett, social exclusion and education, education, education. But not, I think, to guns.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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