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Stand your ground repeal talk brings out strong opinions

CONCORD - Repealing the state's stand-your-ground law will restore the balance between self defense and the sanctity of human life that existed for 40 years, said supporters of House Bill 135 at a public hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

While opponents of repealing the law said it is a self-defense issue, law enforcement officials said the real issue is public safety if someone decides to respond with deadly force in a public place.

Opponents challenged the repeal, saying it is unconstitutional and claimed it makes criminals of good, law-abiding citizens when they defend themselves and their families.

"This bill is a solution looking for a problem," said former N.H. Sen. Jim Luther, R-Hollis. "Where's the problem since stand your ground was passed?" But supporters argued there were no problems with the old law before stand-your-ground was enacted.

"We know the law we would return to under HB 135 worked for 40 years," said the bill's prime sponsor, House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord. "We don't need stand-your-ground in this state."

Shurtleff's bill would remove the section of law that extends the Castle Doctrine from a person's home and property to every place he or she has a right to be.

Under the old law, a person's first obligation was to retreat from danger if he or she could do so safely, before responding with deadly force. Under stand-your-ground, there is no obligation to retreat safely before using deadly force if a person feels threatened.

The stand-your-ground law was approved in 2011 over the veto of then-Gov. John Lynch and made New Hampshire one of about two dozen states with similar statutes.

The stand-your-ground law gained national attention in the Florida case of teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense and said he was being beaten by Martin.

Shurtleff and others said the law has not helped curb violence, and instead states with the law have experienced increases in homicides and manslaughters.

"The criminal element uses stand your ground today when they take the life of another person," Shurtleff said. "All they have to say is 'I felt threatened.'" Repeal opponents argued the old law did not allow people to defend themselves, their families or others. Instead they said, people were asked to make life or death decisions in a split second under great duress.

Under the old law, said former Rep. Jennifer Coffey, R-Andover, women were not given equal treatment. "With a 300-pound man in front of me, what is retreat?" she asked.

There have been no problems during the last two years stand-your-ground has been in affect. Instead, she said, the repeal is a knee-jerk reaction to solve a problem that does not exist.

Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said under the old law police and prosecutors could decide whether a person could have retreated before using deadly force and that caused some good citizens to spends thousands of dollars to defend themselves.

He said repealing stand your ground would be "a lawyer's dream" and would return to old law which "protects criminals."

Other opponents, such as Michelle Levell of the Liberty Alliance, said without stand-your-ground, a Good Samaritan cannot step in and protect someone who is being assaulted.

She said someone would have to think twice or three times before stepping in to help because the person may be liable.

Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath said the old law did not mandate a person retreat. A person only had to retreat if he or she could do so in complete safety, he noted.

"There's a very important balance between an individual's right to self-defense and the sanctity of human life, and you need that balance," Heath said. "If someone decides to engage, it's not the attacker, but the innocent bystanders who could be put a risk."

Heath and Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock told the committee when someone claims they acted in self defense or in defense of another person, prosecutors have to prove otherwise to bring charges.

"I've been a prosecutor for 22 years," Woodcock said. "Prosecutors don't bring charges against people trying to defend themselves."

The committee will decide what recommendations it will make on HB 135 at a later date.

The bill faces an uphill fight in the Republican controlled Senate. It passed the House on a 189-184 vote.

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