If a man breaks into your house while you and your family are sleeping, intending to steal your things, and you catch him, you have the right to shoot him dead.

Seems simple, no?  Everyone but a grasshopper-worshiping Hindu would agree, wouldn’t he?  After all, “A man’s home is his castle.”  Clearly, that widely accepted maxim, which serves as the basis for today’s “Castle Laws,” does not mean that every homeowner actually lives in a large estate house complete with a moat and a mead hall.  Castles are fortified against those who seek to violate the lord of the manor, whether by inflicting bodily harm upon him and those sheltered under his roof, or by stealing his goods.  And if physical barriers are not enough to keep out the enemy, the man whose home is his castle would naturally resort to the use of deadly force, if necessary.

What, after all, is the purpose of having a home to begin with, if not to dwell in a place of sanctuary?  Yes, we have police, those privileged by society to enforce the law immediately and violently (although that is a relatively new situation vis-à-vis the history of civilization).  But our homes are not rooms in a large police station, in which armed officers are the only ones who possess the moral authority to decide who may enter and who may leave.  That would be a prison.

The old one-liner “When seconds count, the police are just minutes away” should be comforting.  We should not wish to live in a police state, with officers on every corner and constant surveillance.  Civilized society cannot be the equivalent of Alcatraz writ large.

Since time immemorial, it has been the duty of the head of the household, the hausvater, the paterfamilias, to protect those people and their possessions under his roof.

That duty does not come from some abstract and ethereal “natural right” arrived at by man crawling out of a pond and reasoning his way toward a social contract.  It is the active existence of the natural order, whose Creator imprinted it into the minds of men—men whose experience is printed on the pages of history, in what we call the common law.  Hence, our statutory laws pertaining to the violent defense of home and hearth are not plucked from thin air: They arise.  (My mentor Harold O.J. Brown used to draw a sharp distinction between legislator, one who “raises” a law, which suggests roots or a foundation, and the modern term of choice, lawmaker.  “Mr. Wolf,” I can still hear him say, “there is but one Lawmaker.”)

Today, Americans are reinventing their social structures and turning them into abstractions, as if such concepts as man, woman, marriage, and murder are mere words on paper waiting for a philosophical justification that comports with whatever feels acceptable to a Hollywood-educated mind.  It is no longer enough to say that marriage has and ever has had only one vital ingredient: the procreation of children, made possible by the union of man and woman. Instead, we look for an abstract basis on which to deny any two humans the right to enter a legal relationship and call it marriage.  To the modern mind, it matters little whether that basis of denial is raw and instinctive disgust or a Bible verse.

The same goes for “life.”  Who wouldn’t say that he is committed to life?  The pro-lifer insists that he values and therefore wants to see legal protection for all life, regardless of age, including the pre-born and the indigent.  The pro-choicer bristles at the more accurate term pro-death, because, he insists, he values and respects life and therefore demands legal protection for those whose “quality of life” would be diminished by having a baby.  The charge of infanticide means little—infanticide being another mere word whose meaning is shaped only by the prevailing mood.

Not everyone, of course, follows the prevailing mood.  Some still think morally in terms of natural law informed by tradition.  Nonetheless many of them express themselves in the language of abstraction.  They, too, talk of rights that are not the grant of a real people with a legal tradition rooted in long experience and revelation, but (instead) the “self-evident” result of a mental process—a process that is always imagined to be utterly objective and disinterested, but in reality is the product of the present culture.  That culture can be self-described as liberal or conservative.  If conservative and Christian, it may appeal to principle, as in “I’m 100-percent pro-life.”  Never mind that the very people to whom the command “Thou shalt not kill” was first given understood kill to mean murder and found it to be no transgression to punish murderers with the death penalty.

Similarly, marriage—many conservatives would argue, based on “biblical principles”—needs to be “defined” as a lifelong union between one man and one woman.

Such rootless reasoning asks, in the present tense, what “value” we place on things.  And because we have cut ourselves off contextually from the traditional meanings of words like home, property, wife, and family, we find we are in a constant search for principles that will clarify our values.  So strong is the influence of our commercialized culture that Americans are tempted sooner or later to gratify their inner Marxist and think of value almost exclusively in terms of money.  Does it really matter that legalizing gay marriage means more jobs in a flagging economy?  That the children of intact homes grow up to earn higher wages?  In an antisociety such as ours, value is thus commodified and becomes fodder for advertising and slogan.

“Ain’t no property worth shooting somebody over, OK?”

That was the statement made by a 911 operator in Texas, in a now-infamous incident from November 2007 that involved vigilant neighbor Joe Horn and his well-functioning shotgun.  Through the window of his home in Pasadena, Texas, Horn watched two men break into his neighbor’s house in broad daylight.  Over the course of his conversation with the emergency operator, he repeatedly insisted that if police did not arrive in time, he would do something, because the burglary he was witnessing “ain’t right.”  When the thieves began to leave their targeted house, and over the objections of the 911 operator (who was legitimately concerned that Horn might shoot or be shot by plainclothes police en route to the scene), Horn chambered a shell and confronted the criminals toting a sack full of loot and a crowbar, killing them after a brief warning as they crossed onto his property.  A grand jury determined that no charges should be brought against Horn.

Leftist politicians pounced on this as an opportunity to denounce guns and the state’s Castle Law.  Cries of racism were heard in the media as, it turned out, the thieves were brown-skinned illegal aliens.  One of them, Miguel Antonio DeJesus (aka Colombian cocaine dealer Hernando Riascos Torres) had faced a 25-year sentence for drugs just a decade before and had been unsuccessfully deported.

“[W]hen does our core decency come in when we make such life-altering decisions in a snap?” asked syndicated columnist Roland S. Martin at the time.  “Don’t you think making the choice to kill someone should be based on something more dire, such as if your life is in danger?”  The title of his article, illustrative of the prevailing mood in the popular culture, was “Was Burglary Worth Killing Two Men?”

Here’s another title, this one from little over a year ago: “Texas Says It’s OK to Shoot an Escort if She Won’t Have Sex With You.”  That’s from the webzine Gawker, one of many liberal publications that seized on the opportunity of a bizarre and titillating court case as an occasion to bash Texas law pertaining to justifiable homicide in defense of life and property.  The lede, from June 6, 2013, reads, “A jury in Bexar County, Texas just acquitted Ezekiel Gilbert of charges that he murdered a 23-year-old Craigslist escort—agreeing that because he was attempting to retrieve the $150 he’d paid to Lenora Ivie Frago, who wouldn’t have sex with him, his actions were justified.”

Miss Frago, a single mother and an employee of the only escort service in the galaxy that (according to the prosecution) charges $150 for a half-hour free of fornication, was speeding away in her “employer’s” car, when an enraged and unsatisfied Mr. Gilbert ran out of his domicile and began firing bullets at—and here’s the part all of the breathless “news” stories left out—Mr. Employer’s tires.  A fingernail-sized fragment of a bullet ricocheted off one of the wheels and struck Miss Frago in the neck, paralyzing her and ultimately killing her.  Press accounts read as if he’d shot her execution-style.

Prosecutors for whatever reason sought nothing but a first-degree murder charge against the disgusting john, and among other defenses offered by Gilbert’s lawyers was the argument that, under Texas law (which, incidentally, proscribes both prostitution and solicitation), Gilbert had the right to use deadly force to stop a theft.

“The jury agreed with his argument,” wrote Vanity Fair, “that he was justified in shooting and killing Frago because she had stolen his property . . . ”  The author, Kurt Eichenwald, a Texas native, cut to the chase:

This—of course—is about Texas laws on guns.  We’re getting to the point in this state where maiming or killing anyone can be justified as legal so long as a gun is involved.  Under this unbelievably expansive statute, someone can use deadly force “to prevent the other’s imminent commission of arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime, or criminal mischief during the nighttime.”

Such a law, he lamented, made his home state a “global symbol of lunacy.”

Time’s Miles Graham also chimed in, declaring that

a Texas jury ruled that [Gilbert’s] actions were legal.  That’s because Texas penal code contains an unusual provision that grants citizens the right to use deadly force to prevent someone “who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property.”

The stories piled up, each revealing that its author had the same access to Google and could therefore read the relevant state statues pertaining to justifiable homicide, or “so-called ‘justifiable homicide.’”  None of the authors apparently googled “how trials work,” or they might have discovered that juries do not “rule” whether actions are legal, or whether a defense team’s argument is valid.  In this case, the jury simply found that the state had not met the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the john intended to murder the escort.

No matter.  The point of all of such editorializing is to pillory the law via reductio ad absurdum.  “Under Texas law,” shrieked Vanity Fair, “if I see some kid getting ready to spray-paint his name on an underpass after dark, I can kill him.”

The Time article was broader, inveighing against Gov. Rick Perry for having signed the latest Texas gun law, casting a curious glance at the statute’s usage of the phrase “theft in the nighttime,” raising the specter of Trayvon Martin, and raising eyebrows at all justifiable homicide laws hither and yon.  Graham also made the inevitable reference to Joe Horn: “‘There’s no property worth shooting somebody over, OK?’ the operator said on the call.”

The 911 operator’s sentiment, shared by so many today who wish to see the scope of justifiable homicides narrowed, if not eliminated, is a principle that is presented as self-evident.  By its light, any law that exonerates someone for killing to protect property is determining the value of cash, a watch, a television, to be less than that of a man.  Thus, Graham includes these ostensibly horrifying examples:

In 2010, the law protected a Houston taco-truck owner who shot a man for stealing a tip jar containing $20.12.  Also in Houston, a store clerk recently killed a man for shoplifting a twelve-pack of beer, and in 2008 a man from Laredo was acquitted for killing a 13-year-old boy who broke into his trailer looking for snacks and soda.

Whatever his faults, Joe Horn seems to have expressed the traditional view of the common-law tradition: Burglary—regardless of the monetary value of the items stolen—just ain’t right.

In his magisterial Commentary on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone notes that

Burglary, or nocturnal housebreaking burgi latrocinium, which by our ancient law was called hamesecken, as it is in Scotland to this day, has always been looked upon as a very heinous offence: not only because of the abundant terror that it naturally carries with it, but also as it is a forcible invasion and disturbance of [the] right of habitation . . .

Blackstone arrays source material from the Bible, the Greeks, the Romans, Anglo-Saxon law, and more recent precedent from such jurists as Sir Edward Coke, writing that, according to tradition, the law of civil society not only protects the weaker party in such a scenario (namely, the one whose house and goods are being violated) but “leave[s] him this natural right of killing the aggressor, if he can . . . ”

[T]he law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it stiles it his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with impunity: agreeing herein with the sentiments of ancient Rome, as expressed in the words of Tully: “quid enim sanctius, quid omni religione munitius, quam domus uniuscujusque civium?

That last, from Marcus Tullius Cicero, translates “For what is more sacred, what more inviolable, than the house of every citizen?”

Blackstone, following Coke, insists that burglary may only occur at night.  Traditionally, this is not because the mere absence of light creates a unique scenario (hence “moonlight,” or in our day the usage of incandescent bulbs, is not a mitigating circumstance), but because night is the time when normal people are at rest, “sleep [having] disarmed the owner, and rendered his castle defenceless.”  So heinous it is to break and enter the home of another, writes Blackstone, that—again, by unanimous tradition—the master of the house, thus awakened, may “kill the assailant with impunity.”

Blackstone emphasizes that “in the daytime there is no burglary.”  Of course, that is not because your property is not yours unless you are asleep, but because unlike our present mode of living, for most of the history of the world, in daytime the home was a lively place and some member of the household was typically present.  And, as Blackstone underscores elsewhere in his section on justifiable homicide, a thief breaking into the home during the day would be committing a robbery, not a burglary, and robbery presupposes the threat of a violent confrontation as part of the act of stealing:

[S]uch homicide as is committed for the prevention of any forcible and atrocious crime, is justifiable by the law of nature; and also by the law of England, as it stood so early as the time of Bracton, and as it is since declared by statute 24 Hen. VIII, c.5.  If any person attempts a robbery or murder of another, or attempts to break open a house in the night time (which extends also to an attempt to burn it) and shall be killed in such attempt, the slayer shall be acquitted and discharged.  This reaches not to any crime unaccompanied with force, as picking of pockets; or to the breaking open of any house in the day time [trespass], unless it carries with it an attempt of robbery also.

The fact that the common law does not prescribe death for nonviolent thievery (larceny) is interesting, because it represents among the English people—whose Anglo-Saxon ancestors had “punished theft with death”—a deferral to classical and Christian tradition:

Theft, by the Jewish law, was only punished with a pecuniary fine, and satisfaction to the party injured.  And in the civil law, till some very late constitutions, we never find the punishment capital.  The laws of Draco at Athens punished it with death: but his laws were said to be written in blood; and Solon afterwards changed the penalty to a pecuniary mulct.

In the case of burglary, moreover, the common-law precedent also harks back to Holy Scripture: “if a thief be found breaking up,” Blackstone writes, citing Exodus 22,

and he be smitten that he die, no blood shall be shed for him: but if the sun be risen upon him, there shall blood be shed for him; for he should have made full restitution.  At Athens if any theft was committed by night, it was lawful to kill the criminal, if taken in the fact: and, by the Roman law of the twelve tables, a thief might be slain by night with impunity; or even by day, if he armed himself with any dangerous weapon: which amounts very nearly to the same as is permitted by our own constitutions.

Theologian Matthew Henry, whose commentary on the Exodus 22 passage was well known to Blackstone, reckons that Moses is urging civility in the sacred text:

As he that does an unlawful act bears the blame of the mischief that follows to others, so likewise of that which follows to himself.  A man’s house is his castle, and God’s law, as well as man’s, sets a guard upon it; he that assaults it does so at his peril.  Yet, if it was in the day-time that the thief was killed, he that killed him must be accountable for it (v. 3), unless it was in the necessary defence of his own life.  Note, We ought to be tender of the lives even of bad men; the magistrate must afford us redress, and we must not avenge ourselves.

Henry recognizes the scriptural truth that, if a man discovers in the morning light that his house has been burglarized, he should seek out the proper authorities, instead of hunting down the burglar.

Blackstone’s Commentaries list burglary as a “Public Wrong” (as opposed to, say, trespass, which is considered a “Private Wrong”).  Larceny may be categorized as petty or grand, depending upon the amount stolen and its proximity to one’s person or home, since the punishment is a mulct and/or a debtor’s prison (although St. George Tucker, translating Blackstone into the context of Virginia, notes that New World conditions had made the addition of a mandatory prison term a necessity).  But burglary, far from being some arbitrary calculation of the “value of a human life” weighed against that of chattel, is a crime against the people, a violation of the public trust.  Our legal tradition grants us the right to kill when confronting such a crime because our tradition values the home as a sanctuary for both the family and its goods.

Today, many states have some version of a Castle Law on the books, indemnifying a man who kills a home violator from prosecution.  These laws, rooted in the common law of Englishmen and Americans, are regularly threatened by activists and politicians whenever the media seizes on an instance of successful home defense or a salacious story that involves guns.  Without such legal protection, citizens become mere wards of the state, like the welfare addicts and the politicians who love them who, along with their attorneys, see Castle Laws as threats to their ideology-based power.

To counter such threats, conservatives often marshal statistics which demonstrate the deterrent effect of armed and vigilant householders.  (To the reasonable, it would seem to make sense.)  Yet the common-law tradition is not primarily interested in deterrence but in justice, without which there can be no civilization.  Justice is a condition that exists apart from statistics or “values”; it is found, ultimately, in the very character of God.  And a just society demands a reckoning whenever the household is violated.