Nigel Warburton wrote in the February issue of Prospect that taking the law into your own hands, by beating up people who were attacking your family, for example, was not compatible with living in civil society. But people continue to do so, like the Sussex pub landlord who appeared in today’s papers saying he regretted not executing two burglars he held at gunpoint.
According to reports, as soon as he heard noises, Simon Thomas got his shotgun out, loaded it, and pointed it at the villains from a first-floor window. Once they were “begging for their lives,” he considered the situation sufficiently under control to call the police. They took 50 minutes to arrive, by which point the intruders were long gone. When the police are so useless, is it acceptable to do what he did?
“If push came to shove I would have fired the gun,” Thomas told reporters. “In some ways I wish I had done, to stop them.”
A rather extreme measure, admittedly, and he may have been overkeen to have a go with his gun: he describes himself as “a firearms man,” though he added: “I don’t want people to think I’m some kind of gun nut.” However, Thomas still had no faith in the police to protect him, and it turned out he was right to.
Nigel Warburton argues that “the risks of condoning retributive measures carried out by individuals are great, not least because, as American judge and theorist Oliver Wendell Holmes has pointed out, ‘detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.'” This is an excellent point—unless, of course, the “the uplifted knife” is a more reliable presence than the uplifted truncheon, or, after that, the uplifted gavel. When people feel that they’re more likely to be attacked than defended, they’re likely to try and defend themselves.
For the Wendell Holmes argument to work, people like Simon Thomas would have to have a better opinion of the police force. Otherwise the cause of “detached reflection” is quite unlikely to hold much interest for them—even the ones who don’t have to deny gun-nuttery.