© 1999  Karen Selick
End Home Invasions—by Criminals or Cops
An edited version of this article first appeared in the May, 1999 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.



End Home Invasions—by Criminals or Cops

The recent hand-wringing by B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh and Premier Glen Clark over the increasingly common incidence of "home invasions" struck me as nothing more than political posturing.  Among the suggestions they sent off to Ottawa were the creation of a new Criminal Code offence distinguishing home invasions from existing crimes (as if criminals will care what we call it), and harsher sentencing.

Criminologists have long hypothesized that it is the certainty of punishment, not merely the severity, that deters would-be criminals from committing crimes.   Length of sentence is only one of several factors promoting deterrence.   Equally important are the probabilities of getting caught and convicted. 

What affects arrest and conviction rates?    Police manpower is undoubtedly a big determinant.  So how are B.C. police spending their time lately?  Well, in January, they were busy conducting some "home invasions" of their own.   A six-person team in Abbotsford made headlines by bursting into a children’s birthday party and shooting the family dog in front of 13 kids.   Their important mission?  A drug search.

Earlier that same day, four heavily armed police officers smashed in the door of a Vancouver bungalow while its occupant, who suffers from a heart condition, was getting ready for church.  Their suspicions had been triggered by large bags of fertilizer in the yard, heavy condensation on the windows and a smell of marijuana near the house.  They found no drugs.  The occupant speculated that his Philippino cooking, followed by incense burning, had brought about this ordeal.

Isn’t it about time that we reconsidered our priorities?   Every hour cops spend raiding homes looking for drugs is an hour they can’t spend preventing violent criminals from raiding homes.   Embarrassing screw-ups aside, it’s time to acknowledge that drug offences are entirely different in nature from violent crimes and property crimes.   Drug users and dealers engage in their transactions voluntarily.   There are no unwilling victims.   These activities should not be crimes at all.  Drug prohibition laws drain police resources, clog up the judicial system, encourage organized crime, raise drug prices so that more violent and property crime occurs, promote corruption, yet still fail to achieve their goals.  Messrs Dosanjh and Clark would be wiser to send a message to Ottawa saying, "End the war on drugs!"

But freeing up more police resources is not the only method of combating home invasions.   No matter how many officers we have, they can’t possibly be where they’re needed every time a home invasion is in progress.  Criminals plan it that way.  The only person who’s certain to be there is the victim. 

A Vancouver police spokesman says citizens have been asking about protecting themselves with guns.  Predictably, police have advised against this, reiterating the standard myth that the criminal will inevitably commandeer the victim’s gun and use it against him.  This may happen a lot in movies, where the prompt, defensive use of a gun would leave script writers with a very short plot.   However, in the real world, people generally understand that the unique advantage of a gun is its ability to make holes in things from a distance, without exposing its owner to close combat.   That’s why one gun manufacturer named its product The Equalizer.  Thus equipped, a frail elderly woman need no longer be at the mercy of a strong young man.

Surveys of robbery and assault victims in the U.S. have shown that those who used a gun for defense were far less likely than unarmed victims, or victims armed with any other kind of weapon, to be injured, and far more likely to thwart the intended crime. 

However, the real power of defensive weapons lies not in their actual use, but rather in the deterrent effect that’s created by advertising that they are on hand and will be used.  Canadians are usually surprised to learn that the burglary rate of occupied homes in the U.S. is only about one quarter that of Canada or Britain.  Surveys of American convicts indicate that they deliberately avoid entering occupied homes because they fear being shot by the 50 percent of U.S. homeowners who own guns.   Burglars in downtown Vancouver know that very few of their targeted victims will possess a firearm, and that even if they do, Canada’s "safe storage" laws will make it virtually impossible for the victim to gain timely access to his weapon.

It’s not necessary for every homeowner to be armed to achieve crime deterrence.  In 1967, police officers in Orlando, Florida trained 2,500 local women in the defensive use of guns.  The program was given repeated front page newspaper coverage.  In the ensuing year, the rape rate in Orlando fell by 88 percent, while remaining constant in the rest of Florida.  Not coincidentally, the burglary rate also declined. 

It’s my guess that one or two news stories about home invaders getting plugged by feisty little old ladies—who would then be lauded as heroines, instead of being charged with weapons offences, as so often happens in Canada—would go much farther towards reducing home invasions than anything the politicians have proposed. 

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June 20, 2000