Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Self-Defense Bills in U.S. Scrutinized

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Self-Defense Bills in U.S. Scrutinized

Article excerpt

Stand Your Ground laws in several states are in the spotlight more and more after Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Florida last month.

No one had yet heard of a Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin when a group of Wisconsin Republicans got together last year to discuss expanding a self-defense bill before the State Legislature.

The bill, codifying the doctrine that a man's home is his castle, made it harder to prosecute or sue people who used deadly force against an intruder inside their house. But the Wisconsin legislators, urged on by the National Rifle Association in a series of meetings, wanted it to go further. They crafted an amendment that extended the bill's protections to include lawns, sidewalks and swimming pools outside the residence, as well as vehicles and places of business.

That expanded bill, passed with little debate by the Legislature and signed in December by Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, is the newest of more than two dozen statutes that have been enacted around the United States in recent years. Those laws are now coming under increased scrutiny after Mr. Martin was shot to death in late February by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator. Similar legislation is pending in several other states, including Alaska, Massachusetts and New York.

The laws expand beyond the home the places where a person may stand his ground, shedding the customary duty to retreat when threatened, and increase protection from criminal prosecution and civil liability. They vary in their specifics and in their scope, but all contain elements of the 2005 Florida statute that made it difficult to arrest Mr. Zimmerman, who has claimed self-defense in the shooting of Mr. Martin, who was unarmed.

Critics see the laws as part of a national campaign to push back against limits on gun ownership and use, an effort orchestrated by the National Rifle Association, which holds its annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, this weekend, and assisted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The council, which promotes model legislation at the state and local level, is a rightist confederation of legislators, corporations like Walmart (a large retailer of guns) and interest groups like the N.R.A.

The success of the campaign is reflected in the rapid spread of expanded self-defense laws as well as laws that legalize the carrying of concealed weapons; only one state, Illinois, and the District of Columbia now ban that practice, as against 19 states in 1981. Bills pending in several states that would allow concealed weapons to be carried on college campuses, in churches, in bars or elsewhere would further weaken restrictions, as would either of two federal bills now in the Senate that would require that a permit to carry a concealed weapon granted by any state be honored in all other states.

"Both directly and with cutouts like ALEC, the N.R.A. is slowly and surely and methodically working at the state level to expand the number and kind and category of places where people can carry concealed, loaded weapons and use them with deadly force," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition of more than 650 mayors that has not taken a position on the Stand Your Ground laws.

Repeated requests to speak with N.R.A. officials about Wisconsin's law or Stand Your Ground laws more generally met with no response.

In Wisconsin, as in other states, the passage of an expanded self- defense law was helped by the 2010 elections, which vaulted rightist Republicans into office. A narrower version of the legislation had languished and died in previous sessions of the State Legislature. But with Republicans now dominating both houses of the Legislature and a Republican governor, several state lawmakers said that the success of the bill and the expansion amendment promoted by the N.R.A. seemed assured.

"I think it's only normal they assumed this could be their year," said State Representative Dean Kaufert, a Republican who introduced the legislation, speaking of the rifle association. …

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