Defending your castle

The sacredness of property as a right is nothing new – in his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke wrote, “the reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property,” and laws going back to Hammurabi’s Code address rules governing conduct in property-related disputes. Obviously, this right has eroded over the past few years Kelo vs. New London but for the most part, your fellow citizens can’t destroy or take your property (well, unless the government says they can).

But when others threaten their property, how far can individuals go to protect it?

In Chicago this week, a 68-year-old woman made the news for fighting back against two boys who had terrorized her and vandalized her property for over a year. Margaret Matthews came home to find broken windows, and when she investigated, was hit in the chest with rocks by the culprits – so she got a gun from inside her home and shot one of the boys. The boys have been charged with aggravated assault; Matthews has not been charged.

A similar story comes out of Britain, where a homeowner used a catapult  (seriously) to fire ball bearings at a group of teenagers who had harassed him and his neighbors for two years. The teenagers sued him for damages, but the lawsuit was thrown out (although the man still must carry out 150 hours of community service for causing bodily harm).

In both instances, the police didn’t make much of an impact on repeated criminal behavior – which isn’t necessarily an abdication of responsibility, but damages the community all the same. The Chicago Tribune says there’s a thin line “between vigilante justice and the right to personal defense.”

Obviously, nobody wants high crime rates, but current policies don’t seem to be working as well as they should. According to John Lott (author of More Guns, Less Crime), knowing that homeowners can fight back has a deterrent effect, because it drives up the cost of criminal activity. If you don’t know whether the person you’re robbing has a gun, you’re going to think twice about sticking them up.

Meeting violence with violence isn’t an ideal situation – but maybe it should be judged on a case-by-case basis. The discretion exercised by the police in Chicago and the courts in Britain is a small, but important step. If a man can’t credibly defend his castle, private property becomes meaningless.

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