2011 Karen Selick
An edited version of this article first appeared in the February 13, 2011 issue of the Calgary Herald
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Have a Right To Defend Themselves
Thomson tried to call 911, but couldn’t get his phone to work. He knew in any event, from previous sad experience, that it would take police between 20 and 40 minutes to respond to his emergency call. With the house on fire in two places, he couldn’t afford to wait. He had to get out. But not knowing who was attacking him or what they might do to him when he emerged, he took the precaution of arming himself.
A target shooter and former firearms instructor, Thomson owned several legally registered guns, stored correctly in his safe. He opened the safe, loaded a revolver, and went out to defend his life. Three masked intruders fled from his property after he fired two or three shots.
Thomson had already endured years of harassment from a neighbour whose long criminal record includes uttering death threats and public mischief. He had found it necessary to install video several cameras to protect his home from vandalism. Footage of the August 2010 firebombing is therefore available on YouTube, entitled “Surveillance camera video of firebomb attack.”
Two men have now been charged with arson. But instead of hailing Thomson as a public benefactor who helped police unmask two suspected criminals, Crown attorneys have instead charged him with careless use of a firearm, pointing a firearm, and two counts of careless storage of a firearm.
Ed Burlew, Thomson’s lawyer, says there is a good chance Thomson will be acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.
But the fact that he is being put through a trial at all is repugnant. Prosecutors might even offer his would-be murderers a deal to testify co-operatively against their intended victim. Already, the charges of mere arson rather than attempted murder point to a possible prosecution strategy of denying that Thomson genuinely needed to defend himself.
But what were his alternatives? Had he waited inside for police to arrive, he might have burned to death or died of smoke inhalation. Had he gone outdoors unarmed, the murderous thugs who were trying to burn his house down might have set him afire or beaten him up.
This case, following on the heels of Toronto grocer David Chen’s case (Chen was acquitted of assault and forcible confinement charges after arresting a thief) demonstrates the peculiar mindset of today’s Crown attorneys. By discouraging people from protecting themselves or their property, they seem to want to make citizens believe that police officers have a legal monopoly on the defensive use of force.
But no such monopoly exists. Self-defence has always been a right under Canadian law, and self-help is frequently the only help a crime victim will get. After all, there are some 440,000 violent crimes annually in Canada—crimes that are neither prevented nor deterred by the criminal justice system.
Calling 911 rarely prevents crimes. U.S. research from 1996 showed that “Fewer than 5 percent of most cities' total dispatched calls…are made quickly enough for officers to intervene or make an arrest.”
Winnipeggers learned this the hard way in 1999, when sisters Doreen Leclair and Corrine McKeowen were found stabbed to death after calling 911 five times one night.
To make matters worse, North American courts generally hold that police owe no duty to individuals who suffer harm when officers respond too late to 911 calls. In 2009, Ontario resident David Millar lost just such a lawsuit against police despite his fractured skull and brain damage. The book Dial 911 and Die by U.S. lawyer Richard W. Stevens contains dozens of similar examples.
Sixteen years ago, university professor Gary Mauser conducted surveys showing that Canadians used firearms to defend themselves or their property against threats from humans or animals approximately 66,000 times per year. Today, however, Professor Mauser reports that such surveys are impossible to conduct. People won’t talk, afraid of being charged themselves.
Canada’s constitution guarantees citizens the right to security of the person. Crown attorneys need to recognize that historically and empirically, security sometimes necessitates the right to armed self-defence. Dropping the outrageous charges against Ian Thomson would be a good place to start.
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July 2, 2011