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N.H. House panel hears 5 hours of testimony on bill to repeal “stand your ground” law

David Yasenka, a pastor of a Lutheran Church in Salem who did not speak on behalf of the church, addressed his concerns regarding New Hampshire House Bill 135 during a public hearing held in Representatives Hall at the State House Tuesday, January 22, 2013. The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard several dozen people speak to the stand-your-ground law, the majority who spoke were in favor of the law and opposed the bill that would repeal it.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

David Yasenka, a pastor of a Lutheran Church in Salem who did not speak on behalf of the church, addressed his concerns regarding New Hampshire House Bill 135 during a public hearing held in Representatives Hall at the State House Tuesday, January 22, 2013. The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard several dozen people speak to the stand-your-ground law, the majority who spoke were in favor of the law and opposed the bill that would repeal it. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Supporters of a bill to repeal New Hampshire’s “stand your ground” self-defense law told a House committee yesterday that narrowing the state’s deadly force guidelines would make people safer. Opponents said it would do the opposite.

“I was in the Army, and we used to say, ‘The best defense was a good offense.’ But I don’t believe that holds true on the streets of New Hampshire,” said House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat and sponsor of the repeal bill.

But Rep. Laurie Sanborn of Bedford, the Republicans’ policy leader in the House, said the bill would effectively strip citizens of their ability to defend themselves in public places.

“Supporting this bill is telling women that they cannot defend themselves. Supporting this bill is telling a mother or a father they can not defend their children,” Sanborn said. “It’s telling the law-abiding people of this state they don’t deserve the right of personal defense.”

Shurtleff and Sanborn spoke near the start of five hours of public testimony before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which moved its hearing on the bill to Representatives Hall in order to accommodate the several hundred people who showed up.

The “stand your ground” law allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves or others against an attacker in any place they have a right to be. Similar laws are on the books in at least 20 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Hampshire’s law was enacted in 2011 by the then-Republican-led Legislature, overriding a veto by then-Gov. John Lynch and objections from law enforcement groups. It replaced a state law that allowed the use of deadly force against an intruder at home, but otherwise required a person to retreat to safety, if possible, instead of using deadly force.

Democrats won control of the House in last year’s election, and narrowed the GOP’s majority in the state Senate. Shurtleff then introduced his bill, which would repeal the stand-your-ground rule and reinstate the pre-2011 state law on self defense and deadly force.

The bill would also repeal part of the 2011 law that granted civil immunity to anyone acting in self-defense for injuries sustained by their attacker. But it wouldn’t reintroduce a clause requiring a minimum sentence of at least three years for any felony conducted with a firearm.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice told the committee that New Hampshire’s old law was “very carefully balanced between the right to use self-defense on the one hand, and the sanctity of human life and the safety . . . of members of the public on the other hand. The right to use deadly force, up until last year, was considered an absolute last resort. You did not try to kill someone if you could get away with safety.”

That, she said, should be the law again.

But Rep. Dan Itse, a Fremont Republican, said people shouldn’t have to decide whether it’s their duty to retreat when making a split-second decision that could save their lives.

“That’s a tremendous decision to make when somebody is demanding your life or your property,” Itse said, adding, “I think this is an unreasonable burden to put upon the average person in a crisis situation.”

In all, roughly 67 people testified yesterday, with 55 opposed to the repeal bill and 12 in favor of it. The hearing lasted five hours and didn’t adjourn until after 7 p.m.

The committee didn’t vote on the bill last night, but will make a recommendation later to the full House.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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