Thursday, November 04, 2004


David Blunkett has given his backing to The Sunday Telegraph's campaign to change the law to give homeowners more rights to protect themselves against burglars. The Home Secretary said yesterday that he was "deeply sympathetic" to those who thought the law should do everything possible to help householders against intruders - and signalled that government action was likely. Ministers are said to have an "open mind" about changing the current law, which allows homeowners to use "reasonable force" to protect themselves. What this term means is unclear, and many people who have defended themselves against intruders have faced criminal charges.

Mr Blunkett's comments follow backing for this newspaper's campaign from David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, who said last week that the law should be "rebalanced" in favour of householders and against burglars. The Home Secretary's intervention is also further clear evidence that the Government will do all it can to hammer home the message in the run-up to the general election that it is "tough on crime". Any government action specifically aimed at tightening the law is likely to have to wait until after the election - expected next year - although Labour is expected to promise a review in its manifesto.

The Sunday Telegraph launched the campaign last weekend following the fatal stabbing of Robert Symons, a London teacher, during a burglary at his home. Mr Blunkett said last night: "I am deeply sympathetic to those who feel the law should do everything possible to protect householders. That's why I changed the law last year to prevent homeowners being sued by intruders who injure themselves while breaking in. What's lacking is a clear alternative to the definition of 'reasonable force', which has thankfully been interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary in favour of householders just in the last few weeks."

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"Clint Smith looks natty in a green bulletproof vest and a holstered, ivory-gripped pistol as he strides across his unfinished shooting school in the mountains north of Lakeview. But the man who teaches gunfighting to Navy SEALs, Delta Force operators and assorted civilians is nothing if not modest. "Almost everyone on the planet is a better shot than me or faster than me," Smith says with a slow smile. "The issue is, who is using cover best? Who is using better tactics?"

Smith, 55, and his wife, Heidi, 37, are relocating Thunder Ranch, their Texas-based tactical shooting school, to an 886-acre ranch in remote Lake County on the California border. It will open in February in a county with high unemployment and limited tourism. In a more urban community, the influx of hundreds of gun-toting strangers might cause some concern. But Ray Simms, adviser to Lake County's Board of Commissioners, doubts it will cause undue alarm, especially during hunting season. "Out here for the most part, every other pickup going down the road this time of year has a rifle in the window," he says.

The 11-year-old Thunder Ranch in Texas is the largest among dozens of tactical shooting schools across the nation, says firearms expert Roy Huntington of San Diego, editor of American Handgunner and Guns magazines and a longtime friend of the Smiths. The school teaches gunfighting to 1,200 students a year on a 2,400-acre ranch near Mountain Home, Texas, and grosses $1 million annually. Students shoot at targets moving on cables and learn to clear rooms and stairways, among other techniques. Most of the action happens outside. In Lakeview, military and police teams will train at the ranch, but 80 percent of the students probably will be "Sam and Suzy homemakers," Smith says.

His philosophy is more about not shooting than shooting, he says. The 6-foot, 170-pound Vietnam veteran and ex-police officer teaches avoidance of violence, even when it means hiding behind the bed and dialing 9-1-1 when something goes bump in the night, he says. "Most of what keeps people out of fights is personal awareness, thinking ahead," he says. But criminals sometimes leave no avenue for people to avoid fighting back. When that happens, "I need for them to shoot well," he says.

To be admitted to Thunder Ranch, prospective students must bring a concealed weapon permit or letter from a sheriff or police chief attesting to their law-abiding character.

Portland Police Sgt. Larry Baird has trained under Smith 12 times and returned to Texas in September for one final class before Thunder Ranch moves to Oregon. "Most police agencies can't put on this intense a training class," says Baird, a 24-year police veteran. "Firearms skills are easily lost, and so it is just a way to keep my skills honed." Smith is regarded as something of an iconoclast in the shooting fraternity, says Huntington, the magazine editor. The proprietor of Thunder Ranch regards handguns, even powerful .45 caliber pistols, as poor fighting instruments and prefers rifles because the bullets hit harder. "The reason people carry pistols is they haven't ever got in a fight with one and haven't figured out they are not very good," Smith says.

As a young Marine, Smith did two tours in Vietnam and was shot in the right shoulder by an enemy with an AK-47 rifle. He returned to combat after three months of recuperation. Later, he worked for 10 years as a police firearms instructor and SWAT team sniper for the Allen County Police Department in his home state of Indiana, he says.

Heidi Smith decided to learn to shoot while a college sophomore after being robbed at gunpoint in Bellevue, Wash., she says. Later, she became a firearms instructor. Now, she regards her skills as "the best form of equality." Pointing to her husband, she says, "I know I can protect him."

Lakeview town manager Roberta Huddleston thinks most of the 7,400 residents of economically strapped Lake County are delighted about the arrival of the shooting school. The county never recovered from the loss of the timber industry, and unemployment last year averaged 10 percent compared with 6 percent nationally and 8 percent statewide. The new business is expected to fill motel rooms and help restaurants and retail businesses, she says. "It is going to bring people in from all over," she says. "This is the most incredible thing I can think of." "

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