»  National Review Online

June 5th, 2003

  Justice Turned Upside Down


Crime is not only a complete disavowal of the social contract, but also a commandeering of the intended victim's person and liberty. If the individual's dignity lies in the fact that he is a moral agent engaging in actions of his own will, in free exchange with others, then crime always violates the victim's dignity. It is, in fact, an act of enslavement. Your wallet, your purse, your car, may not be worth your life, but your dignity is; and if it is not worth fighting for, it can hardly be said to exist.
                      — Jeff Snyder, Nation of Cowards

There is an old joke about Heaven being a place with British government, American houses, French high culture, Japanese hygiene, Chinese cooks and Italian opera, while Hell has Italian government, Japanese houses, American high culture, French hygiene, British cooks and Chinese opera. Well, as a keen propagandist for the delights of British food I am not altogether on board with that. (Though I am at one with the travel writer Jan Morris, who claims that all her trips to China are organized around the principal goal of avoiding Chinese opera.) There is, however, one thing I should not be at all surprised to find if, after shuffling off this mortal coil, I wake up in the Lower Place: British gun laws.

I think the insanity of modern Britain in this regard has been pretty well advertised on NRO. The poster child — poster geezer, I suppose we should say — for that insanity has been Tony Martin, the 58-year-old farmer who has been in jail since 1999 for discharging a shotgun at two burglars who had broken into his home. One of the perps died; the other was slightly wounded. The burglar who died was 16 at the time — a tender age, you might think; but this apple-cheeked lad had managed to accumulate 29 criminal convictions for acts of theft and violence in his short life.

A string of events followed the shooting, each more preposterous than the last. Martin was convicted of murder and given a life sentence, though after massive public protests the sentence was reduced to five years for manslaughter. The burglar's companion in crime, who is 33 years old and has a mere 30 convictions to his name — practically a law-abiding citizen! — has now been given public funds so that he can prepare a civil action against Martin. Meanwhile Martin remains in jail after four years, parole having been refused him because, no kidding, the parole board judged that he was a risk to burglars. Apparently Martin had failed to do what a parole board requires a prisoner to do — that is, feign contrition. He did not feel sorry for what he had done, and was frank about saying so. Most damning to his case for parole was a report from his probation officer that criticized him for "not being up to speed with the 21st century and thinking things were better 40 years ago." That, in Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, counts as serious thoughtcrime.

So: in the brave new world of 21st-century Britain, burglars and thieves must be protected, while homeowners who defend their property on the old common-law principle of tutissimum refugium [a man's home is his safest refuge] are hustled away to jail. "Justice turned upside down," as the Conservative member of parliament for Martin's district put it. A big factor in this madness is the terror of guns that has gripped Britain since the 1996 Dunblane shootings. It is now very difficult for ordinary British citizens legally to acquire a gun of any kind. It is wellnigh impossible in the case of handguns. The results of this gun-panic have been perfectly predictable: a rapid rise in gun crime, and stupendous levels of the kinds of crimes that gun ownership deters — notably burglary.

The kind of mentality that has brought about this state of affairs in Britain is on display over here, too. We saw it in New York city last week, in two incidents that illuminated the nature of the problem rather starkly. On the night of May 25 three masked bandits walked into a convenience store in Harlem, waving handguns and demanding cash. One of the store employees, 69-year-old José Acosta, pulled out a handgun of his own and started shooting at the robbers. They fled, but one of them had taken a bullet in the chest and later died. Mr. Acosta was arrested and charged with criminal possession of a weapon, his handgun being unlicensed.

Three days later another convenience-store clerk, also in Harlem, was shot dead in a similar robbery. He had no weapon, licensed or unlicensed. Forty years old and just married, Mohammed Dramy paid the price for being unarmed in a city where every teenage crack-head owns a semi-automatic.

Now, you may say that Mr. Acosta was at fault for not having applied for a pistol license in the proper way. The New York Police Department will tell you that a business owner is entitled to a "premises" license, allowing him to have guns at his business, so long as he has no arrest record or history of mental illness. That is true. However, Mr. Acosta is not a business owner — he only worked in the store. Furthermore, the license approval process takes months to go through to approval, six months at a minimum. And furthermore yet, the success rate for applicants is dropping fast, from 91 percent in 2000 to 85 and 80 percent in the following two years, to just 57 percent so far this year. "Carry" licenses are even harder to come by: a few years back, the NYPD denied a carry license to a Chinatown businesswoman who collected over $500,000 cash rent every year. (She appealed the decision and won.)

Out there in red-state America the message of the statistics carefully gathered by John Lott has sunk in, where it was not instinctively understood already: "More guns, less crime." In Michael Bloomberg's smoke-free New York city, among people too poor to be able to afford armed private security guards and left-liberal opinions, a more cynical slogan is current: "Better to be tried by twelve than carried by six." That, I am sure, accords with José Acosta's feelings in the matter. What Mohammed Dramy's feelings might be, we cannot know. He is dead, and his wife a widow.