I recently watched a Panorama documentary based on America and their gun crime laws. Quite an eye opening programme, in more ways than one! Gun crime in America is a highly debated, contentious issue which frequently rears its head after yet another fatality or mass shooting - such as the cinema shooting in Colorado earlier this year. American laws dictate that anyone over the age of 18 with a clear criminal record can hold a gun licence, and many of the large supermarkets sell guns along side the daily essentials.
The stand-your-ground law is one of the many reasons why many Americans own such powerful machines. By definition this means that 'the use of deadly force in self defence of your own home grants immunity from arrest, detention and prosecution.' With recent events many citizens of the USA are fully conversant in the rights this law gives them - quite astonishing to think.
This law although popular in some states has led to many injustices and flaws in the American justice system. One of the most poignant moments of the documentary was of a gentleman who saw two men robbing his neighbours house. He rang the emergency services, and asked them blatantly, "Do you want me to go shoot them?" The operator with vigour told him to remain indoors until the police arrived. In the next sound clip the viewer heard the gentleman telling the operator, "I know my rights, especially with the new law." He then proceeded to run outside, shouting at the robbers, "Move, move I'm gonna shoot ya." A few gunshots later and the two men were dead.
In addition to the above, the American stand-your-ground law was thrust into the limelight yet again in February this year. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old boy who had gone to his local 7-Eleven store to pick up some skittles and ice tea for himself and his little brother. On his way home, George Zimmerman, the local security officer for their gated community, spotted him with his hood up and believed him to be 'up to no good'. Zimmerman had a concealed gun, which is legal in the state of Florida. The details of what happened next are hazy, however the outcome was in fact fatal for Trayvon. Initially under the stand-your-ground law the Chief Inspector released Zimmerman on the basis he was acting in self defence. Following the weeks and months after the incident, details started to emerge which didn't sit well with the local community. There were many staged demonstrations and debates seeking justice for Trayvon, which spread nationwide reaching even the presidential election, thus leading to the re-arrest of Zimmerman six weeks later. He is yet to stand trial.
Understandably, people have the right to protect their homes and person, however in both these instances, neither of those shooting were at risk - but both incidents ended in fatalities. But has it reduced the crime rate? There has been no evidence to suggest it has, and it is worth noting that there has been a marked increase in homicide cases in states where this law has been implemented.
This programme really made me think about the current state of play with the law in England. A couple of weeks ago, Chris Gayling, Secretary of State for Justice, announced that he plans to change the law to something similar to the American stand-your-ground laws. Although we do not have the same firearm laws, they are hoping to ensure that if householders are burgled and they react in a way that may seem disproportionate 'in the cold light of day' they will still be protected from prosecution. The Lord Chief Justice reinforced the notion that 'furious householders will have the right to get rid of burglars in their own homes and are not expected to remain calm when confronted by intruders.' Judge Michael Pert QC supported this, stating that "being shot by homeowners was simply a chance that burglars took." However, acting in a 'grossly disproportionate' manner will still remain against the law.
A case which could potentially highlight this is the Tony Martin incident - he fatally shot a teenage burglar as he was trying to flee the scene of the robbery. There have been many critics and supporters of this case. His neighbours depicted him as an ordinary man, plagued by burglars and let down by the police who had struck back - but who has now been persecuted for his actions. However, throughout his court case, details started to emerge which described an angry and dangerous man, who had set a number of traps awaiting for another intruder into enter his property. Furthermore the angle of the bullets hadn't mirrored the story he had depicted. The courts, although sentencing Tony to a prison sentence, started to blur the law between self-defence and offences against the person. This sympathetic approach would be furthered by the introduction of this primary legislation.
I fully comprehend that many people would disagree that this primary legislation would lead to injustice, but would in fact place the power back in the hands of the victim or homeowner. On the other hand, some would stand by the argument that there are too many people who would take advantage of this law and could create even more of a criminal culture - after all, as the infamous saying states, two wrongs don't make a right.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the responsibility of law enforcement should be left with the professionals i.e. the police force and judiciary preventing. I have previously have been a victim of robbery, and understand the upset, anger and distrust it can cause. However would the presence of such laws have prevented the burglary from ever happening? Most probably not. We can only wait and see what will happen in the UK, but I am sure there will be many more debates to come.