Editorial: Lawmakers should revisit stand-your-ground law

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Perhaps if New Hampshire’s motto was “Live Free in Peace” lawmakers would have a less expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment. That’s not the case.

Recent years have seen continual efforts to expand gun rights. Last year, the first bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu was one eliminating the need for a police permit to carry a concealed weapon. Now, no one knows how many people have a deadly weapon hidden on their person or if they’ve gone through a police check to determine if they’re fit to do so. It’s time for a statewide conversation about gun rights, a conversation that includes school district officials, business owners, law enforcement, clergy, legislators and others.

Recently, two men were seen in a Concord supermarket openly wearing sidearms. It did not make shoppers feel safer. Many businesses ban weapons, whether worn openly or concealed, unless carried by members of law enforcement. Private enterprises have that right. But pity the store clerk or theater manager who has to ask armed patrons to leave the premises.

The right to prohibit weapons on public property, including in the state’s schools, is being challenged. A bill sponsored by Dunbarton Rep. J.R. Hoell seeks to fine communities or school districts that regulate the possession of firearms or knives. As absurd as it would be to permit armed citizens to enter schools, Hoell has a point. In 2011, during the radical right-wing speakership of then Rep. Bill O’Brien of Wilton, lawmakers accorded all rights to control weapons to themselves. That needs to change.

They then went on, over the veto of then Gov. John Lynch and against the advice of most in law enforcement, to make New Hampshire a “stand-your-ground” state. Previously, under the “Castle Doctrine,” unless people were in their own home or yard, they had the duty to retreat, if possible, before responding to a threat of harm with deadly force.

The new law eliminated that responsibility. Today, if a person is anywhere they are lawfully entitled to be – on a downtown street, in a park or at the movies – they can open fire if they fear for the safety of themselves or others. If a judge determines that their fear was legitimate, a subjective judgment, the shooter will not face criminal or civil liability.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to enact a stand-your-ground law, an act made famous when a self-appointed neighborhood watchman killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. Lawyers for the shooter, George Zimmerman, cited the stand-your-ground law in his defense before deciding to take the case to trial. Zimmerman was acquitted.

Recent years have seen Florida police officers cite the stand-your-ground law to seek exoneration for shootings that may not have been otherwise justified under the rules and procedures that govern law enforcement’s use of deadly force. Two Florida police officers charged with beating a man in a wheelchair successfully used the law. A retired police captain who shot and killed a moviegoer who threw popcorn in his face after being told to turn off his cell phone failed with the same defense. His case is still awaiting trial.

Last week, the New York Times reported that a Florida police officer who killed a musician and housing inspector whose car had broken down is seeking exoneration under the stand-your-ground law.

Last year in New Hampshire, four people were killed in police shootings involving nine officers. Three shootings were deemed justified. The fourth, the Dec. 23 shooting of Jesse Champney in Canaan, is still under investigation. So far, no New Hampshire officers has employed a stand-your-ground defense. It would be harder to do so here than in Florida, thanks to differences in the respective state laws. But before the issue comes up, the Legislature should revisit the law and decide how, if at all, it should apply to law enforcement officers and whether the state’s gun laws, in this age of frequent mass shootings, make sense.