Send in the gnomes

Posted: Apr 17, 2005 12:00 AM

The police are there to protect us. Maybe.

Unfortunately, a dominant strain of contemporary police culture wants citizens to limit their involvement in their own protection. Just call the authorities. Don't do anything else. Certainly, don't defend yourself.

This strain is most obvious in Britain. That country has strict gun control laws. And sword control laws. And knife control laws. Cooks have been prosecuted for carrying their specialty knives in public. People who have defended themselves against violent criminals with knives and other "illegal weapons" have been prosecuted ? and have even received harsher penalties than their criminal attackers.

The latest story to appear in the news tells of a Mrs. Jean Collop, grandmother, who awoke one weekday morning to the sound of an intruder on the roof. It was not Christmas, and this fellow wasn't St. Nick. She went outside, looked up, and "grabbed the first thing" that came into her hand ? a garden gnome ? for a weapon. She "politely" told him not to move, and hurled the gnome at him. The gnome, a member of a great traveling race ? according to Am?e, Travelocity, and urban japery ? found its destination and hit the man.

The intruder lost his footing, fell, and lay still on the roof. She screamed for help. (The neighbors called the police.) But she wasn't helpless. She ambled back into her house and got a rolling pin. "I didn't want to break another gnome."

So runs the story ? as near as I can piece it together from various sources. A bizarre, even amusing tale of self-defense.

My first take on Mrs. Collop's adventure was that a gun might have worked better. Point a gun, tell the criminal to stay put, and call the police. Guns are most often used to threaten, not shoot. And, because guns can be more deadly and more easily targeted than gnomes and rolling pins, they work more effectively as threats.

But innocent subjects of the British crown and modern welfare-state nannyism don't really have that option.

They must make do, apparently, with gnomes.

Mrs. Collop went back into her home a second time, retrieving a camera and photographing the would-be burglar as he fled. The young man whose crime was prevented by Mrs. Collop's gnome was eventually nabbed by the police, who arrested and "cautioned" him.

But the police couldn't help themselves; they had to add a discordant note to the whole proceedings. A spokesman for the Devon and Cornwall Police was given the last word in the AP account: "Our usual advice would be not to get involved, but to contact the police straight away." Not get involved . . . why, it's only your own defense! He understood that this "usual advice" didn't quite fit this story, adding, "We do appreciate that in the heat of the moment people react to that situation, and if it results in a happy outcome, that's great."

Well, thanks. Though I'm not sure that the victims who have defended themselves with knives and guns and cane swords and other illegal weapons, and then found themselves prosecuted by British authorities, really appreciate his appreciation.

The question British crime fighters seem obsessed with is that of over-compensation, of individuals taking self-defense up to the next level: the administration of punishment. But it seems to me that British police and prosecutors too often side with criminals rather than with victims who defend themselves. Take the case of Barry-Lee Hastings, who defended his family from another burglar. In an altercation in his own home a few years ago, he armed himself with a bread knife, of all things, and after hearing what he thought was his daughter's cry, confronted the assailant rather than call and wait for the police. In the struggle, Mr. Hastings killed the miscreant ? a wanted man, a career criminal ? and found himself charged with murder. The prosecutor said he'd gone "too far." The jury let him off.

With manslaughter.

Fortunately, a year later a judge came to his senses and let Mr. Hastings out of prison early, deciding that the first judge's five-year sentence had itself gone too far.

The advice and attitude of the police? Dogged in their persistence, it remains the same, case after case: Retreat. Don't defend yourself. Call the police ? "and let us do our job," as one chief inspector put it. "If you take the law into your own hands there is always a danger."

Somehow, he offered no thoughts on the dangers of not defending oneself.

But in Britain the danger too often seems to be the police themselves. It's not just the criminals, whom more than a few Brits seem able to subdue with bread knives and garden gnomes.

When I write these columns and my Common Sense e-letter, and point out the tragedies and crimes and follies of modern political life, I keep in mind that I really appreciate living in America. Even when it gets bad. Even when republican, individualist traditions are being eroded. I often think, "At least I'm not in Britain." But hey: I've got to respect British pluck. Especially that of Mrs. Jean Collop of Cornwall.

No matter what happens in Britain, let's make sure we always have guns for self-defense in America. Otherwise, can you imagine the queue for garden gnomes?