Campaign Leads States to Legalize Use of Deadly Force in Self-Defense

A campaign by gun rights advocates to make it easier to use deadly force in self-defense is rapidly winning support across the country, as state after state makes it legal for people who feel their lives are in danger to shoot down an attacker — whether in a car-jacking or just on the street.

The law has spurred debate about whether it protects against lawlessness or spurs more crime. Supporters say it's an unambiguous answer to random violence, while critics — including police chiefs and prosecutors — warn that criminals are more likely to benefit than innocent victims.

Ten states so far this year have passed a version of the law, after Florida was the first last year. It's already being considered in Arizona in the case of a deadly shooting on a hiking trail.

Supporters have dubbed the new measures "stand your ground" laws, while critics offered nicknames like the "shoot first," "shoot the Avon lady" or "right to commit murder" laws.

At its core, they broaden self-defense by removing the requirement in most states that a person who is attacked has a "duty to retreat" before turning to deadly force. Many of the laws specify that people can use deadly force if they believe they are in danger in any place they have a legal right to be — a parking lot, a street, a bar, a church. They also give immunity from criminal charges and civil liability.

The campaign is simply about self-defense, said Oklahoma state Rep. Kevin Calvey, a Republican and author of the law in his state. "Law-abiding citizens aren't going to take it anymore," he said.

"It's going to give the crooks second thoughts about carjackings and things like that. They're going to get a face full of lead," Calvey said. He introduced the bill at the request of the local National Rifle Association, and it passed with overwhelmingly support: The House agreed 83-4, the Senate 39-5.

Democratic Gov. Brad Henry signed it and said: "This act will allow law-abiding Oklahomans to protect themselves, their loved ones and their property."

Besides Oklahoma, the nine other states to sign on are Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Dakota, according to the NRA.

Critics say the NRA is overstating its success. Only six of those states expanded self-defense into public places, said Zach Ragbourn, a spokesman at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. There already is a presumption in law that a person does not have to retreat in their home or car, he said.

And there have been a few high-profile defeats, too.

In New Hampshire, the measure passed the legislature only narrowly and then was vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who was joined by police and prosecutors.

Police Chief Nathaniel H. Sawyer Jr. of New Hampton, New Hampshire, said the legislation addressed a problem that does not exist. In 26 years in law enforcement, he has never seen anyone wrongfully charged with a crime for self-defense, he said.

"I think it increases the chance for violence," said Sawyer, also the president of the New Hampshire Association of Police Chiefs. "It increases the chance of innocent people being around the violence and becoming involved in it or hurt."

The bill would have allowed a person "to use deadly force in response to non-deadly force, even in public places such as shopping malls, public streets, restaurants and churches," Lynch said when he vetoed the legislation. Existing law already gives citizens the right to protect themselves, he said.

The NRA argues that victims wind up with an unfair burden if the law, as it does in New Hampshire, requires a duty to retreat, if possible. "That does crime victims little good when they have to make a split-second decision to protect their life from violent attack by a criminal," said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive director.

"The only people that have anything to fear from this type of law is someone who plans on robbing, shooting or raping someone," LaPierre said.

That argument sounds good and it is winning supporters, said Florida state Rep. Dan Gelber, a critic of the law when it passed in his state last year and a former federal prosecutor.

But like Sawyer in New Hampshire, he does not see any instances now or in the past of a victim being prosecuted for failing to retreat. He sees the Florida law, and the national campaign, as an effort by the NRA to build support and keep its members riled up.

"The NRA is a victim of its own successes. No political party in Florida today is going to advance any serious gun-control agenda," said Gelber, a Democrat. "What's left is these little things which have no impact on every day life, but inspire and activate the base."

And, he argued, it gives defense attorneys a potential avenue to seek acquittal for crimes. In effect, criminals will benefit much more often than any innocent victim. "It's going to give the guy who's really looking for a fight, or does something totally irresponsible or venal, a defense he would not otherwise have."

Last week in Arizona, the state appellate court delayed the start of jury deliberations in the trial of a retired school teacher charged with second-degree murder for shooting a man on a hiking trail in May 2004. The court is deciding whether the new law applies to his claim of self-defense.