Remember Tony Martin? “An Englishman’s home is his castle”? Martin’s 2000 trial, in which the man was found guilty of murdering the teenaged ne’er-do-well robbing his home, awakened discussion in the UK of self-defence standards. The issue is now in the American press. Last month, Pennsylvania became the latest American state to pass a “castle” law.
Castle doctrine, an American legal doctrine derived from English common law, runs that a person has the right to defend him- or herself with deadly force against an attacker on their property.
Those gun-toting, bourbon-swilling Americans, you may be thinking. Where do they think they are, the Wild West? Here in the UK, we use a far more civilised “reasonable force” standard. Leaving gun control itself aside, though, it might well be time to reconsider self-defence standards in the UK.
At the heart of castle doctrine is a recognition that the individual ought be sovereign over his or her property. As I have earned this pound or built this house, so it is mine to do with as I see fit and, by extension, mine to protect.
Fine, but how about in the real, governed world? Of course, in practice, we are unable to assert an absolute right to privacy, property, and self-defence in modern society. Nonetheless, the concepts are still worth defending and are, to some degree, enshrined in our laws. The police cannot enter my home without one of my permission, probable cause, or a warrant. Castle laws acknowledge that, even within a governed society, the private sphere is—or ought be—just that.
Castle laws are often characterised as bloodthirsty retributive justice. Ideally, no one has injury visited upon them, ever. In giving people the right to use greater force against attackers, though, we do more than merely raise the likelihood that a would-be rapist is harmed. Castle laws raise the perceived costs of crime, thereby deterring it. They also mean that, when fighting for one’s life, a person does not have to spend crucial seconds thinking about whether they will be prosecuted for their means of defence. An attack is already underway. It seems appropriate to locate responsibility for that attack spiralling out of control (if such a thing can be said of an assault) with the attacker, not the victim.
Between Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, American champions of property, privacy, and self-defence rights can seem a bit nutty to most Brits. With castle laws, though, the Americans might be onto something.