Pennsylvania self-defense bill appears dead

Brad Bumsted
| Saturday, July 3, 2010

HARRISBURG -- Supporters are trying to salvage a bill stalled in a House committee that would allow a person to shoot an assailant in self-defense outside of the home, without taking steps in retreat.

The so-called "stand your ground" legislation, hailed by gun advocates, is an extension of the "Castle Doctrine" law that allows a person to use lethal force without retreat on an intruder in one's home, or "castle." Outside the home, the law requires a person who is threatened to literally step backward before shooting an attacker in self-defense.

House Bill 40 eliminates the duty to retreat when outside the home -- in a driveway, yard, the street, or any place that person is legally permitted to be, according to a House Judiciary Committee analysis.

"Why should you have a duty to retreat when someone is coming at you with a weapon?" said Rep. Scott Perry, R-York County, the bill's sponsor. "Why can you only defend yourself in your home• Are you more valuable in your home than out of it?"

Perry and other supporters hope to advance the legislation this fall, through amendments or a parliamentary maneuver. Short of that, the House bill appears to be dead for the 2009-10 session. This could be the sixth year in a row that supporters failed to get such legislation passed.

"I don't see it happening right now," said Rep. Cherelle Parker of Philadelphia, a key gun control advocate for House Democrats. "This is an election year."

"Gun politics is an extremely emotional and personal issue for a cohort of voters," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Critics call it "shoot-first legislation" that would encourage vigilantism. In November testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the bill would give "gang killers" legal defense for shooting each other and encourage aggressive behavior such as road rage.

What distinguishes HB 40 from most of the thousands of other bills that die every session is its 125 co-sponsors. It takes 102 votes to pass a bill, and there's no question that HB 40 would pass if sent to the full House for a vote, said House Judiciary Chairman Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading. The bill's bipartisan co-sponsors come from rural and urban areas, including numerous Democratic legislators from Western Pennsylvania.

After winning support in the Judiciary Committee May 25, the bill was assigned the next day to the Appropriations Committee, often a graveyard for bills that legislative leaders oppose. Perry said he believes House Democratic leaders sent it there to die.

Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, said he hadn't seen the bill.

That's typical of standoffs in the House over gun issues.

If gun proponents file a Castle Doctrine amendment to a crimes bill, House Democratic leaders won't run the bill, or gun control proponents vow to attach an amendment requiring the reporting of lost and stolen handguns -- something the National Rifle Association opposes.

Although a marriage of the Castle Doctrine with lost-or-stolen legislation would garner considerable support, neither side appears interested.

Kim Stolfer of McDonald, chairman of Firearms Owners Against Crime, rejects the notion: "I will not connect self-defense with an expansion of gun control laws."

And Caltagirone notes: "The NRA will not give an inch on that issue."

Under HB 40, a person must believe his or her life is threatened before shooting, and cannot be involved in the commission of a crime. The person threatened must see a weapon on the assailant that could inflict serious injury or death.

"This is not a carte blanche authorization of the use of lethal force," said Elizabeth Male, an Export attorney who owns guns for self-defense and supports HB 40.

Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, said he hears more about the Castle Doctrine bill than just about any other in his district. But Joe Grace, executive director of CeaseFirePA, contends the bill is "gun lobby 'feel-good' reform" and it "perpetuates the myth that having more guns makes you safer."

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