CONCORD -- Several hundred people turned out Tuesday to a public hearing to oppose a bill they say would deny them the constitutional right to self-defense in public.
Supporters of House Bill 135, which repeals the state's year-old stand-your-ground law, say the current law could cost innocent lives. The bill's prime sponsor, House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, wants to return to the Castle doctrine, which he said served the state well for decades. His bill would not allow deadly force as self-defense in the public square without first retreating from harm, if possible, he said.
"I was in the Army. We used to say the best defense is a good offense," Shurtleff said. "But I do not believe that should be true on the streets of New Hampshire."
Bill opponents said the change would make criminals of good, law-abiding citizens when they try to defend themselves and their families.
"This would prohibit good people from the right of self-protection and that is wrong," said Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford. "What right as a legislature do we have to deny people the right to self-defense?"
She said someone in a crisis situation has seconds to decide if he or she should use deadly force. With HB 135, a person making that decision could be a criminal because they didn't first retreat, she noted.
"We must ensure our laws protect good people over bad people," Sanborn said. "We hope to defeat HB 135 and give assurance to our law-abiding citizens that they to have a right to self-defense."
Shurtleff's bill would remove a section of the law that extends the Castle Doctrine from a person's home and property to every place he or she has a right to be.
The bill also removes a provision of last year's law that prohibited an innocent bystander injured or killed when someone legally uses deadly force from civilly suing the person for damages.
In addition, the bill would change the law to redefine brandishing so that showing a gun in an intimidating and menacing way would be a criminal act.
Approved last year
The stand-your-ground law was approved last year over the veto of then-Gov. John Lynch and made New Hampshire one of about two dozen states with similar statutes. Like New Hampshire, several other states are eyeing modifications to their laws if not attempting to repeal them.
The stand-your-ground law gained national attention in the Florida case of teenager Trayvon Martin.
He was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense and said he felt threatened by Martin.
During Tuesday's hearing, Shurtleff acknowledged New Hampshire has had no such cases during the year the law has been in place, but said he wants to be proactive.
"We do not want someone needlessly killed because of stand-your-ground," he said, noting the murder rate has increased 8 percent in Florida since the law was passed in that state.
House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, opposes the bill, saying it would impose unclear boundaries for a person who has to decide when it is legal to use deadly force or turn and run.
"I believe that if one has a legal right to be in a certain place that they should have the legal right to defend and protect their friends, family, self and innocent people around them," Chandler said. "It seems quite ridiculous that one would have the right to defend themselves in their own home, but that when they are in another place that they have a legal right to be in, they must turn and run."
Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, cited the Second Amendment to the Constitution and said: "Nothing in 2 or 2a says we surrender any of our right to defend life, liberty or property, including in the public square."
He proposed lawmakers include a provision in the bill that would have the state provide future earnings for the families of anyone maimed or killed while trying to retreat from harm instead of defending themselves.
Rep. Fred Rice, R-Hampton, said if the bill passed, people would not have the right to defend themselves.
"At what point does my life or someone I know or am with does their life become not worth saving?" Rice asked.
50-plus spoke on bill
The Attorney General's Office supports the bill. Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said until last year, the state had a law that carefully balanced the right to self-defense and the safety of the public, and made the use of deadly force the last resort. The old law worked very well for decades, Rice said.
The Rev. Stephen R. Silver, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Lebanon, said "idolatrous Second Amendment absolutism has taken hold in some doctrines."
He reminded people that Jesus taught that "those who live by the sword die by the sword."
Rep. John Hikel, R-Goffstown, defended the current law, saying: "It is not a free ticket to go shoot somebody because you disagree with them."
He noted a person has to defend their action and prove they acted in self-defense.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard from more than 50 speakers on the bill, most opposing it.
The committee will have to vote on a recommendation before the bill goes to the House for action.