Forget About Having Your Friends Over for Dinner; in Missouri It’s Your Enemies You Want to Invite
For years, I’ve begged my wife to let me buy a gun. The only reason I want one is that, if an intruder enters my house and tries to terrorize my family, I would like to be able to defend us. The baseball bat under the bed just doesn’t seem sufficient to do the trick. Never mind that I am a total coward and would no doubt hand the gun to my wife and tell her to go fight the bad guy — at least I’d be able to imagine the scenario would play out differently. Smartly, my wife has told me we need a better reason than that to justify owning a gun.
Given my own heroic fantasies, I heartily endorse a new law passed in Missouri which, according to STLtoday.com, stipulates that “people are not required to retreat from an intruder and can use deadly force once the person illegally enters their home, vehicle or other dwelling, including a tent. The bill provides an absolute defense against being charged or sued for using such force.” In most places, you need to prove you were in real danger of being hurt or killed in order to justify the use of deadly force.
From a crime deterrence theoretical perspective, this law makes sense to me. A burglar has no legitimate reason to be in your house. Burglary is a crime with high social costs (victims feel an awful sense of violation when their home is ransacked, even if the burglar doesn’t get much), but relatively low expected punishments for the criminal because arrest rates are low. Most victims never see the burglars, so they’re difficult to catch, as opposed to street robberies. I did a rough calculation many years ago in an academic paper, and if I remember correctly, the risk of lost years of life for burglars who were shot and killed by their victim amounted to about 15% of the total prison time they could expect to serve for their crimes. In other words, if you are a burglar, being killed by the resident should be a serious concern. If this law encouraged more residents to kill intruders, there would likely be fewer burglaries.
On the other hand, this law probably won’t have much real impact on crime. The kind of people that shoot burglars when they catch them in their homes are likely to shoot the burglar whether such a protective law is in place or not. (That is, more or less, my reading of the evidence on concealed weapons laws.) I think that, in practice, they mostly let you off the hook legally if you shoot an intruder. If victim behavior doesn’t actually change, there is little reason for burglar behavior to shift. Even worse, you get a bunch of bumblers like me trying to fight burglars under the new law, and we end up getting shot.
The law does bring to mind some interesting possibilities, however. If there is someone you dislike so much that you want him dead, all you need to do is figure out how to get him to come inside your house, and make it look plausible that he was an intruder. Maybe you could tell him that you are having a late-night poker party and to just let himself in and come upstairs to join the game. Or maybe say there’s a surprise party for a mutual acquaintance, so all the lights will be out, and to come to your bedroom at 2 a.m.
Never underestimate the creativity and deviousness of humans — or the speed with which Law and Order will take the first example of this and turn it into an episode.
(Hat tip: Doug Nelson.)