In Hobbes’ Leviathan, three principal causes of violence were identified: competition, diffidence and glory. The logic of the Leviathan is that a monopoly of violence by the nation state reduces the incentive to be violent. As Steven Pinker famously argues in A Better Angels of Our Nature, this was one of the five historical forces that led to the decline of violence over the centuries. Even if we accept that homicide rates, cruel and unusual punishments and superstitious killings are lower than before, we struggle to fit this narrative around acid attacks.
For one, 2017 is projected to be the year with the highest number of acid attacks ever recorded in the UK. The frenzy begun with student Resham Khan and cousin Jameel Muhktar, shortly followed by indiscriminate attacks on a female paramedic, a pregnant woman, Notting Hill carnival goers and a 75-year old pensioner in the following months. But it is the sadistic nature of an acid attack that is most difficult to reconcile with Pinker’s analysis. The aim of an acid attacker is not to kill, but to permanently disfigure another. While acid attacks represent targeted violence against women in the likes of Bangladesh or Pakistan, what we are witnessing in the UK is arguably worse. Criminals are normalising acid as a standard assault weapon in the UK. So why does our Hobbesian state seem complacent to this violence?
On the 17th July, Mr Stephen Timms of East Ham led the House of Commons to debate more or less that question. He put forward two proposals to reform the current law governing possession of acid. First, carrying acid in public should be treated the same as carrying a knife in public. This means that although legitimate reasons can be found for the purchase of acid, just like they do for the purchase of a bladed knife, there should be zero tolerance.
To find the current laws on acid possession, the first place to look is the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. Pursuant to s1(1) “Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him, has with him in any public place any offensive weapon shall be guilty of an offence, and shall be liable… to imprisonment for a term not exceeding four years or a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds, or both.”
“Public place” includes any highway, and any other place accessible by the public, while “offensive weapon” can be an article “made” or offensive per se, “adapted” to cause injury to others or, third, “intended” for that purpose. Possession of concentrated sulphuric acid is likely to be in the “adapted” category, but could equally fall in the offensive per se category.
So what are the problems with the current law? For one, possession is an inchoate offence. This means that there is criminal liability (pursuant to s1(1)) even if no complete offence has occurred, such as causing grievous bodily harm to another. Possessing a bladed knife is governed the same, “any person who has an article [with blade or point] … in a public place shall be guilty of an offence” (The Criminal Justice Act 1988). Again, the statutory maximum term of imprisonment is four years, or a fine, or both (s139(6)).
In this sense, carrying acid is exactly the same as carrying a knife in public. Perhaps what Mr Timms could have emphasised is a review of whether this statutory maximum term for possession of any offensive weapon is effective.
But there is a strong principled case against longer sentences for inchoate offences. Not only does criminalising possession widen the scope of liability, but it targets regulatory rather than intrinsic wrongs. Yet if we are to follow the line that prevention is a legitimate and important principle of criminal law, the climate of acid attacks should warrant reform. As Sir Igor Judge once ruled on the possession of firearms, we should prioritise “the reduction of crime, including its reduction by deterrence, and the protection of the public.”
Maybe the more important problem is effectiveness (or lack of it). The key difference between possessing acid and possessing a bladed knife is the subtlety. Unlike a knife, acid is easily concealed in an everyday medium such as a water-bottle or a flask. This means that it is far less detectable and far less risky, hence its attractiveness. While police can use nitrile gloves and testing facilities to detect corrosive substances for a particular event, on an average day attackers go unnoticed. If people are not being caught for possession, why would we bother passing a bill to extend the statutory term for imprisonment?
This brings us to Mr Timms’ second proposal: to impose licensing for the purchase of acid. He proposes to upgrade acids from ‘reportable’ to ‘regulated’ substances within the Control of Poisons and Explosive Precursor Regulations 2015. This would require an EPP license and photo ID from the buyer to legitimately purchase the substance, under the supervision of a registered pharmacist. While this would make it significantly harder for gang members to purchase acid from their hardware or convenience store, such a scheme will ultimately depend on whether it reaches the online market.
The use of acid as a weapon in the UK is an affront to our civilisation. When Hobbes listed three causes of violence, he forgot a fourth; sadism. We should pass a bill through Parliament to increase statutory terms for possession and to impose strict licensing. Complacency has cost us thus far.
23 November 2017