Wednesday January 23, 2013

CONCORD, N.H. -- Deadly force would no longer be a viable first option for someone defending themselves or others in a public place -- if they could safely retreat from the threat -- under a proposed change to New Hampshire’s stand-your-ground law.

About 200 people attended a House hearing Tuesday on a bill to repeal parts of a law that Republicans pushed through two years ago -- over a governor’s veto and law enforcement’s objections -- allowing people to use deadly force to defend themselves any place they have a right to be without having a duty to retreat.

The deadly force law is based on the Castle Doctrine, which says a person does not have to retreat from intruders at home before using deadly force. The New Hampshire law passed in 2011 expanded that principle to public places -- anywhere the person has a right to be.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, is proposing again requiring people to retreat in public if it is safe to do so.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice testified that New Hampshire’s old law balanced the rights of people to defend themselves with protections for the sanctity of life.

She said the bill had nothing to do with guns or Second Amendment rights.

"This has to do with self-defense," she said.

But opponents said the change would hurt honest citizens defending themselves and others against criminals. They argued police often show up at a crime scene to investigate the aftermath, which is too late to protect people.

State Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford, said requiring someone to retreat was tantamount to telling victims they can’t defend themselves since they would have seconds to decide whose rights took precedence.

"Our laws must protect good people over bad people," she said.

"We’re living in times where not everyone is strong enough to run away or push away an attacker," added state Rep. John Hikel, R-Goffstown.

Shurtleff’s proposal also would repeal a provision that grants civil immunity to using force against assailants under some circumstances and a provision that says brandishing a weapon isn’t considered deadly force under the law. Shurtleff said someone would have to brandish a weapon in an intimidating or menacing way to be considered a crime under his proposed change. Shurtleff said innocent bystanders wounded by a citizen acting against an assailant would be able to sue the person if the civil immunity provision is changed.

The brandishing provision was inspired by Moultonborough farmer Ward Bird’s incarceration on a mandatory minimum three-year sentence for showing a gun when a trespasser refused to leave his property. Bird was jailed for several months before the Executive Council took the rare step of commuting his sentence.

Laws in at least 20 states say there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place the person has a legal right to be, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several states besides New Hampshire are revisiting their self-defense laws since the Florida case in which George Zimmerman was charged in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman argues the shooting was self-defense.