Mob Rule at the BBC

by Kieran Healy on January 3, 2004

The results are in from the “Listeners’ Law” feature on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, where the show’s audience chose between five bills, with Labour MP Stephen Pound agreeing to propose the winner in Parliament. More than 25,000 people voted. The winner was a “proposal to authorise homeowners to use any means to defend their home from intruders.” It won with 37% of the vote.

Pound clearly had been bargaining for something a bit more enlightened. Press commentators have been smirking at his subsequent discomfort, but his immediate response assures him a place in future anthologies of political quotations. “The People have spoken,” he said, “the bastards.”

The runner-up proposal was of interest to me professionally. It was a “presumed consent” law for organ procurement, i.e., “A Bill to allow the use of all organs for transplant after death unless the individual has ‘opted out’ and recorded that opt out on an organ transplant register.” The synergistic benefits of combining this proposal and the winning candidate into an omnibus package don’t seem to have been discussed. Nevertheless, the presumed consent idea beat out three proposals, namely, “A Bill to ban smoking in all workplaces, to include bars and restaurants,” Prime-Ministerial term limits and compulsory voting, and “Ban all Christmas advertising and the erection of municipal street decorations before 1st December.”



Ghost of a flea 01.03.04 at 6:33 am

The response already has a place in anthologies of political quotations under the name Morris King Udall. I take it by your choice of the terms “enlightened” and “smirking” that you share Pound’s opinion of democracy? ;)


Tim Lambert 01.03.04 at 7:58 am

Phone-in polls do not repreesent the voice of the people in any meaningful sense. My post on this is here


Kieran Healy 01.03.04 at 9:28 am

I know that, Tim. But who knew the string-em-up crowd listened to Radio 4?


Kieran Healy 01.03.04 at 9:32 am

But actually clicking through to your post, I see what the point of your post was. The Blimp of Knoxville is churning it out as usual.


Keith M Ellis 01.03.04 at 11:06 am

Phone-in polls do not repreesent the voice of the people in any meaningful sense.“—Tim Lambert

Neither do Internet polls. I received a very pleasing email the other day from the folks (American Family blah-blah-blah) conducting that web poll on gay marriage. They sent me this email because I responded to their poll—which required an email address—after it was mentioned on MetaFilter.

The “pro gay marriage” position is ahead of “anti” and “civil unions” by a large margin.

They tell me they’ll keep me up-to-date with the results of this “very important” poll. Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t buried it yet.

PS: Good ‘ole Mo Udall. He’s probably got more than one quote in those anthologies, eh?


Brett Bellmore 01.03.04 at 2:28 pm

The proposal strikes me, and indeed most people, as quite enlightened. And has proven entirely workable here in the US.

Perhaps a more legitimate poll is in order. Any bets as to how it will turn out?


darwinian 01.03.04 at 3:30 pm

Since there’s ample evidence that gun owners are more likely to shoot themselves or members of their own family rather than anyone else I would heartily support such legislsation.


jimbo 01.03.04 at 4:56 pm

I was rather shocked when I heard that Brits could actually be prosecuted for harming someone breaking into their home. I always kinda thought of self-defense as an absolute principle of any just society. But then I’m just a neanderthal American (and non-gunowner, BTW) who’s watched too many “Dirty Harry” films…


ahem 01.03.04 at 6:04 pm

And has proven entirely workable here in the US.

Ah, yes. The family of Yoshihiro Hattori would entirely agree, I’m sure.

I always kinda thought of self-defense as an absolute principle of any just society.

So did the jury in the Martin case, using the well-established legal definition of ‘reasonable force’. Shooting someone in the back at close range while he pleads for mercy doesn’t fit that definition.

Of course, the tabloids didn’t make that point, and the MP is quite right to rank ‘Tony Martin’s Law’ alongside ‘send the darkies back home’.

who knew the string-em-up crowd listened to Radio 4?

Tabloid-readers may not, but their editors certainly do, and listing the relevant phone numbers allowed said readers to vote without turning the dial away from Talk Sport.


Ray 01.03.04 at 6:07 pm

An opt-out organ registry? Opt-out registries have a rather high failure rate (just take a look at the number of telemarketing calls we still get). I think it would be rather bad PR for the organ transplant folks if they accidentally used the organs of somebody who really didn’t want it for whatever reason — and such a registry would be begging for that to happen.


Katherine 01.03.04 at 6:10 pm

The U.S. varies a bit from state to state, but the general rule is that you’re not required to flee from your own home to avoid using force or even deadly force. But there usually is an exception–if your attacker lives there too, you must flee. Obviously this usually comes up in domestic violence cases. Yeah, we’re enlightened all right.


John Isbell 01.03.04 at 7:38 pm

Ampersand at Alas, A Blog has IMO a crisp review of the precise implications of Family blah’s gay marriage email reminder, and the loopholes it leaves them. He also posts the email. If you know Amp, it’s quite sweet they sent him a reminder.


Brett Bellmore 01.03.04 at 8:06 pm

Darwinian, you seem a mite confused. To be sure, the suicidal frequently shoot themselves. This is no more an argument against gun ownership, than the fact that hungry people drive to grocery stores is an argument against car ownership. ;)

As for family members being shot, were you perhaps under the impression that criminals don’t have families? Or perhaps you simply thought that they exempted them from their predation….

I am indeed sorry that people are occasionally wrongly shot. I’m also sorry that people occasionally die of anaphylactic shock when vaccinated. Shall we abolish vaccines?

Nothing’s perfect.


Matt Weiner 01.03.04 at 10:16 pm

As for family members being shot, were you perhaps under the impression that criminals don’t have families? Or perhaps you simply thought that they exempted them from their predation…

I think what darwinian said was at best in poor taste, but it also seems implausible that most shootings of families are in self-defense (esp. if Katherine is right). Do you know of any statistics on this?


Brett Bellmore 01.04.04 at 12:38 am

I suspect that Darwinian is refering to that notorious “study” of Authur Kellerman’s. About which, the following is a good response:

The fundamental problem with attempting to do accurate research on this subject, is that, clearly, if firearms ownership is a hazzard, it’s a minor one, what with something like 40% of households having guns, and only a tiny fraction of them being the site of either defensive or homicidal shootings. Other risk factors, such as living with somebody who has a criminal record, are hugely more significant. It would take some delicacy to extract the truth from all those confounding variables, and Kellerman’s efforts weren’t particularly subtle.

At any rate, I simply objected to Darwinian’s presumption that shooting a family member had to be unjustified.


John Isbell 01.04.04 at 1:03 am

IIRC John Lott has some entertaining statistical studies on gun use in self-defense in the US. The statistics in no way support Kellerman’s notorious “study”, but they are a bit confusing.


Katherine 01.04.04 at 1:43 am

I double checked with my criminal law textbook
& while that is still the rule in many jurisdictions, there’s a recent trend away from any exception to the “home is your castle” exemption from the duty to retreat.


Brett Bellmore 01.04.04 at 3:30 am

Yup, just another way our legal system is being contaminated by European influences.


darwinian 01.04.04 at 6:32 am

It would appear that most shootings of self and family members occur accidentally; i.e. because of the carelessness and/or stupidity of the gun owner rather than his murderous or suicidal tendencies. In my view preventing people from suffering the consequences of their own stupidity and/or carelessness is not smart social policy. If you want to reduce the number of people who favor personal gun ownership the most effective way would be to let the fools own all the guns they want.


Jeff 01.04.04 at 7:12 am

Since another poster mentioned that 40% of U.S. households contained at least 1 firearm (and based solely upon personal experience, I have no reason to doubt the figure), and a majority of U.S. citizens strongly support the RIGHT (as in, written into the Constitution, as the Second Amemdment) to bear arms, it would seem that your post shows a distinct lack of intellectual rigor, Darwinian.


John Isbell 01.04.04 at 12:20 pm

“If you want to reduce the number of people who favor personal gun ownership the most effective way would be to let the fools own all the guns they want.”
Actually, jeff, this statement seems cogent to me, if you assume (as I think one must) that people argued out of supporting gun ownership are not by definition lost to the ranks of its supporters. Has your comment exposed a hidden flaw in its logic? That would usefully support your above conclusion. Or perhaps I am missing the relevance to this debate of how big the current number in fact is, your point as I understand it. If you reduce a number from 70 to 69, it is smaller, much as a number reduced from 7 to 6 is. I therefore feel certain that your above refutation is more complex than I have grasped.


Brett Bellmore 01.04.04 at 2:09 pm

It would be a cogent suggestion, were it really true that gun ownership had severe adverse consequences. According to the CDC, there were under 800 deaths from accidental shootings. That can of Draino under the kitchen sink is more of a threat to your childrens’ lives than the .45 in the dresser drawer.


darwinian 01.04.04 at 3:07 pm

So should the State ban Drano? Seems logical if you think it should ban personal gun ownership. But then, I’m not intellectually rigorous. But I do think that every little home hazard contributes overall to reducing the spread of stupidity.


Sam 01.04.04 at 8:14 pm

Has it occured to any of you that the fact that 40% of american households own a gun is the reason why you feel you need them to defend your homes. In England we have the right to protect the safety of ourselves or others by any means necessary but not our property. If you werent all armed then neither would the person your defending yourself from.


darwinian 01.04.04 at 11:42 pm

Has it occurred to you that you’re incoherent?


Brett Bellmore 01.05.04 at 12:34 am

I think I’ll just quote the founder of criminology, Cesare Beccaria:

False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils, except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.

Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important of the code, will respect the less important and arbitrary ones, which can be violated with ease and impunity, and which, if strictly obeyed, would put an end to personal liberty–so dear to men, so dear to the enlightened legislator–and subject innocent persons to all the vexations that the guilty alone ought to suffer?

Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve to rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man. They ought to be designated as laws not preventative but fearful of crimes, produced by the tumultuous impression of a few isolated facts, and not by thoughtful consideration of the inconveniences and advantages of a universal decree.

Or to paraphrase, why do you expect criminals to obey gun control laws?


Kragen Sitaker 01.05.04 at 12:41 am

Kieran, your last post nearly prevented me from considering reading Tacitus, because you pointed out that he was obviously a scoundrel and a knave. But your assertions turned out to be mistaken, as the comments showed. Don’t you think you should post a retraction to CT’s front page already?


andrew 01.05.04 at 6:07 am

This gun-control discussion is kinda silly, as it suffers from a lack of data on the empirical questions. This does, however, lower the barrier to entry for numbskulls like me to participate, so here I go:

If a guy with a fancy name (Cesare Beccaria) and a quote in actual italics says that accidental shootings are an “imaginary or trifling inconvenience” it must be true, right?

And as to why a society should “expect criminals to obey gun control laws”…We don’t have to. As long as it’s not a real moral issue, only is required that the costs outweight the gains. In where do the advantages lie? Oh yeah, in political appeals to emasculated males.

Here’s a stretched analogy: drunk driving provides a benefit – being able to drink whenever we like and then drive home is convenient. And drunks are more likely to survive a crash. Though they are more likely to cause one. Private benefits, external costs to society. Like firearms. A tiny chance that an owner is safer, while society is made less safe.

And the illusion of safety is really all that is offered: the gun owner and the drunk driver are actually more likely to hurt themselves.


Brett Bellmore 01.05.04 at 10:56 am

Andrew, the point Cesare was making, which is well understood even today by criminologists, (That’s why gun control “research” such as Kellermans’ tend to be published in medical journals.) is that by it’s very nature as a law, gun control first disarms the segment of the population from whom the least harm, and the most benefit is derived: The law abiding. And only at the very last, if at all, disarms those from whom the bulk of the harm derives. You pretty much have to dismiss the existance of any benefit AT ALL from gun ownership, to conclude that gun control passes a cost/benefit analysis, because it’s the benefit you lose first.

Your analogy to drunk driving is pathetic: Drunk driving is ITSELF an offense, while what you’re proposing to ban is drinking. And while drunk driving is HIGHLY dangerous, the vast majoritiy of gun owners somehow manage to own a gun their entire lives without ever causing anybody any harm. Almost all the harm comes from a small segment of the population. Who gun control is least effective at disarming!


Sam 01.06.04 at 9:01 pm

I didnt say gun control would reduce gun crime, it too late for that. What i meant was that if america hadnt embraced guns in its constitution so long ago then they wouldnt be so common now, if they werent so widely available now then criminals wouldnt have such easy access to them and there wouldnt be so much gun crime. Every single shooting in england is followed by massive media coverage and public outcry. Talk about self defence all you want but its my opinion that guns are for cowards, whether they’re ciminal or claiming to be defending themselves. I’d rather be shot than use one.


Gregg 01.13.04 at 3:51 am

So did the jury in the Martin case, using the well-established legal definition of ‘reasonable force’. Shooting someone in the back at close range while he pleads for mercy doesn’t fit that definition.

Nor does then proceeding round to the neighbour’s house, waking him up and compelling him to drive you round the countryside looking for someone else to shoot. As Tony Martin did.

Tony Martin went to prison for going beyond reasonable force to commit acts of revenge. There were mitigating circumstances, and nobody would suggest that he acted in cold blood, hence his light sentence. But he went beyond the use of reasonable force. And I suspect that he’d have been prosecuted in America, too.

Every year, thousands of Brits use reasonable force to defend themselves from crime and, after an investigation to establish the facts, no action is taken against them. Every few years, one person goes beyond the use of reasonable force, into the territory of revenge or vigiliantism, and is prosecuted. And the media goes ape-shit.

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