Let's repeal state's 'Stand Your Ground' law

Last modified: 5/6/2012 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire finds itself in the midst of a compelling national debate in the wake of the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. No one questions that New Hampshire citizens have the right to feel safe on the street in front of their house, or in the park where their children play.

But in 2011 - over the objections of law enforcement from across New Hampshire, the attorney general and Gov. John Lynch - the Republican-led Legislature passed a law that allows people to open fire in public places and claim self-defense.

New Hampshire's version of a 'Stand Your Ground' law, SB 88, was vetoed by Lynch, but the Legislature overrode his veto of the bill that models the Florida law last September.

This new law expanded the former 'castle doctrine' in New Hampshire. Under the 'castle doctrine' someone could respond to deadly force in their home (castle) without first retreating. Our new, risk-filled law allows people to claim self-defense even if they shoot an unarmed person.

Before the change to 'Stand Your Ground' a person outside his or her home had a duty to retreat - but only if they could do so in complete safety. This new law expanded the potential firing zone to virtually anywhere including school playgrounds, parks, malls, parking lots - anywhere an individual might feel threatened by perceived 'deadly force.'

People should be able to take any action necessary to protect themselves from imminent danger. But they should not be able to open fire on a street, in a mall, or a public park unless it is a last resort necessary to avoid harm to themselves.

The unnecessary and dangerous consequence of the new law is why we are proposing the Protect our Homes, Protect our Streets amendment. Our amendment returns us to the former 'castle' doctrine law safeguarding homes but deters people from opening fire in a public place - endangering the lives of bystanders - if there are other reasonable options.

During last year's debate on Stand Your Ground, Florida's law was used to highlight problems with such legislation. Since the 2005 Florida law took effect instances of justifiable homicide have tripled according to the Tampa Bay Times.

As a recent Washington Post editorial stated, these laws 'lessen the odds that a hot-tempered confrontation would be allowed to cool down without violence. . . . They give permission to shoot first and ask questions later.'

Why are these laws sweeping the land, with 22 states adopting them, when there is no public outcry clamoring for such policies?

It is because of powerful lobbies, the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, in the lead, which produce templates of bills for state legislators to introduce. They contribute large campaign checks to candidates to get right-wing laws on the books, even if it means inciting vigilante-style 'justice' movements.

New Hampshire citizens need to stand up for personal and public safety that does not rely on wanton use of deadly force. New Hampshire's tragic rash of gun-related fatalities (17 New Hampshire fatalities in the past four months, exceeding all 2011 gun-related deaths) reinforces the need for an immediate legislative revision of this law.

Citing the tragic outcomes of gun violence in Greenland and around the state, the state Senate sensibly tabled a further expansion of House-passed gun-rights legislation last week that would have allowed felons to possess firearms (HB 536).

Now it's time for us to repeal Stand Your Ground and return to the sensible laws we've lived safely under for many years by adopting the Protect our Homes, Protect our Streets amendment.

It's our job to keep New Hampshire as one of the safest states in the nation. It's time to work together in the best interest of public safety in New Hampshire rather than pander to radical out-of-state interest groups.

Clearly our citizens should feel safe in their right to defend themselves and their homes. Yet turning our parks, public places, playgrounds and parking lots into danger zones is another matter all together.

'These laws seem to be encouraging vigilantism by allowing individuals to use deadly force as a first resort,' wrote New York Sen. Charles Schumer in his recent letter to the U.S. Dept of Justice requesting its review of these laws. He's right.

Let's not wait for vigilantism to take hold or the Justice Department to act. Let's repeal this law in New Hampshire now. Let us maintain our citizens' rights to protect their homes without compromising law enforcement's ability to safely protect our public.

(Sen. Sylvia Larsen of Concord is the Senate Democratic leader.)

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