© 1994 Karen Selick
 In Defence of Self-Defence
An edited version of this article first appeared in the July, 1994 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 In Defence of Self-Defence
Back in the days when men and women were running around in a state of nature (by which is meant an absence of government, not an absence of clothing), it was universally accepted that every individual had the right to defend himself from attack by another. 

Then, according to philosophers like Locke and Hobbes, people got the bright idea that they could band together and form a government, and delegate to one of its branches (the police) the task of defending the vast majority of individuals against the physical violence of a very few.

At that stage, however, the police force was viewed as merely one arrow in the quiver of the defender.  The existence of the police did not preclude you from defending yourself if that was what seemed necessary at the time.  Indeed, says Hobbes, the right of self-defence is something you cannot give up.

Suddenly in 1994, people are waking up to find that the old philosophy has changed--worse than changed, actually; it's been stood on its head.  Now we are told that we should not (indeed must not) attempt to defend ourselves; we have to let the police do it.  Indeed, the government has taken away from us many of the tools we might use if we'd rather be do-it-yourself defenders than wait for their services.  We no longer give orders regarding crime to our servant, the government; it gives orders to us. 

Examples of this new attitude are everywhere.  In the wake of the Just Desserts shooting in Toronto, citizens have been instructed to offer no resistance to criminals.  Be passive.  Comply.  Wait for the police to come.  (Yeah, sure--just don't hold your breath.)

Mace, stun guns and pepper spray, all devices which could be used for protection by those who deplore the thought of owning a gun, have been declared prohibited weapons in Canada.  

We aren't even allowed to protect ourselves by being well-informed and vigilant.  When a 17-year-old was convicted earlier this year of raping and murdering his six-year-old neighbour in Victoria, the victim's relatives were horrified to learn that he had already been on probation for sex crimes against children.  No-one had known, because such information isn't released under the Young Offenders Act.

In Colborne, Ontario recently, a pharmacist had his rifle and handguns confiscated after he shot out the tires on the getaway car of two burglars who had broken into his store in the middle of the night.  He says that average police response time in his small village is 30 minutes.  The police say he should not be using a weapon to protect his property, even though he is an experienced marksman, has a handgun permit and has had eight break-ins in two years.

In Toronto two years ago, Metro councillor Norman Gardner shot a thief in the leg in his (Gardner's) bakery.  His action was criticized by Police Services Board chairwoman Susan Eng because it suggested "that the police can't come to his rescue fast enough."  Well, gee whiz, Ms. Eng, are you actually trying to suggest that they can?  With crime in Toronto getting worse all the time, that proposition is simply ludicrous.

The advertisements that used to appear regularly in The Globe and Mail offering pepper spray for sale (for use against dogs and bears, ha-ha) are no longer there.  Personally, I don't want a gun--yet--but I sometimes ask myself, should I have said to hell with the law and stocked up on pepper spray when I had the chance?

I know the arguments: a weapon might be used against its owner some day, or could even provoke a criminal into violence in the first place.  After reading up on this subject, I'm not persuaded that the risks outweigh the benefits.  According to Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, there are 645,000 defensive uses of handguns per year in the U.S.  Thirty-eight percent of convicted felons reported having been scared off, shot at, wounded or captured by an armed victim.  In robberies involving personal contact with the offender, 25 percent of victims who remained completely passive were injured anyway.  Of those robbery victims wielding guns, only 17 percent were injured.  Of those using weapons other than guns and knives, 22 percent were injured.

But even if there is some risk that I could become a victim of my own weapon, isn't that a decision that I can make for myself after informed deliberation?  The same statistics are available for everyone to read.  If I decide it's a risk I want to take, who is the government to tell me otherwise?  We all have different tolerances for risk, just as we all have different tolerances for passive victimization.  Why should we all be required to march in lock-step?

Meanwhile, I carry a 107-decibel shriek alarm in my purse, in the pathetic hope that if I'm ever attacked, it will be by someone who hasn't already half-deafened himself listening to a stolen ghetto blaster.  And I pray that the government doesn't decide to outlaw even this pitiful little self-protection device on the grounds that it might accidentally some day give somebody a nasty fright.

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June 07, 2000