CONCORD — Supporters of House Bill 208 call it a technical correction to New Hampshire’s “Stand Your Ground” law, while opponents say the bill significantly expands authorization for the use of deadly force.
A public hearing before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday served as a platform to debate the question of just how far the state should go in allowing people to defend themselves and those around them.
Current law allows people to use deadly force for self-defense in cases where a third party is likely to use “any unlawful force in the commission of a felony against the actor, within the actor’s dwelling.”
The amendment proposed in HB 208 would add “against the actor or another” to a particular section of the law, so that people would be authorized to use deadly force if they or anyone else is threatened in their home.
Rep. Max Abramson, R-Seabrook, said the omission of “another” was a mistake, since other parts of the Stand Your Ground law empower people to defend themselves or others.
“We tried to track down why this error is in place, and I haven’t heard from anyone who knows why these words were left out,” said Abramson.
Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress, says the omission is not a mistake.
“This will expand the type of situations in which deadly force can be used, such as someone bringing illicit drugs into your home, or someone making a threat, or a fist fight when there are no weapons involved,” she said. “That’s why we believe the Legislature in the past has left the law the way it is.”
Representatives of the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of New Hampshire said the bill simply creates consistency within the various provisions of the Stand Your Ground law.
“If I have the right to defend myself, I should have that ability to defend others,” said Joe Hannon, president of GONH.
At first glance, that seems like a reasonable proposition, said Hawkins. “However, when you look closer you’ll realize that current law already authorizes deadly force in response to non-deadly force, and this bill seeks to expand that even further.”
There are four circumstances that now allow for deadly force — if someone:
• Is about to use deadly force against you or someone else nearby;
• Is about to use deadly force while committing or attempting to commit burglary;
• Is committing or about to commit kidnapping or a forcible sex offense; and,
• Is likely to use any unlawful force while committing a felony against you in your home or surrounding property.
Hawkins said her organization feels the fourth provision goes too far already, by allowing anything that qualifies as a felony to trigger justified deadly force, and that expanding the provision is taking the law in the wrong direction.
Class A felonies include murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, sex crimes and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
“But other types of Class A and Class B felonies include things like computer fraud, possession of small amounts of illegal substances, and theft of property. Is deadly force warranted in situations of computer fraud or drug possession?” Hawkins said. “And how can we be sure that the perpetrator was using unlawful force during the commission of that activity?”
She used the example of a house party at which one of the guests starts a fight.
“How can we be assured that this proposed change will not be used to justify deadly force against that individual,” she said.
She pointed out that Abramson, the bill’s primary sponsor, was found guilty in 2012 of one felony count of reckless conduct for shooting a firearm during a party at his home in 2010.
“This bill is simply correcting a drafting error that’s in place,” said Abramson. “My self-defense case had absolutely nothing to do with motivating the bill.”
Prior to 2011, the state operated under what is known as the “castle doctrine,” allowing deadly force without first attempting retreat if a person is attacked in his or her home.
In 2011, the state Legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. John Lynch to pass SB 88, a Stand Your Ground Law that allows the use of deadly force anywhere under certain conditions, without first attempting to retreat.
Criminal Justice Committee Chair Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said the committee could vote its recommendation on HB 208 as early as today.