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N.H. Panel Mulls ‘Stand Your Ground’

Concord — The battle over New Hampshire’s “stand your ground” law moved to the Senate yesterday as supporters and opponents spent three hours debating its merits and flaws during a public hearing.

A bill that would repeal the 2011 law has become one of this year’s most controversial pieces of legislation.

“We’ve heard so many mistruths and untruths and just false stories about what this bill would or would not do. ... If only half of the stories that I’ve heard about what this bill would or would not do were true, it’d be about the size of War and Peace,” said House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Shurtleff’s bill would return state law allowing the use of deadly force in self-defense to its pre-2011 language, which required a person to withdraw from a situation if possible, except in their home. Today, a person is not required to retreat if they are “anywhere he or she has a right to be.”

His bill passed the Democratic-controlled House last month by a slim margin, 189-184. But its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 13-11 majority.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the repeal bill yesterday from 32 people, split evenly between supporters and opponents. Many of the arguments had previously been aired during the House’s March 27 floor debate, or during a five-hour hearing before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in January.

Supporters said the stand your ground law is unnecessary, could endanger public safety and has been used by criminals as a defense for violent crimes in states like Florida.

“We do not need stand your ground in this state,” Shurtleff said.

The bill is supported by the attorney general’s office and the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock said people who legitimately act in self-defense usually don’t get charged with a crime, anyway.

“I think you have to have some confidence in your law enforcement people, that they do do their level best to prosecute, the people who really deserve prosecution and not someone who is simply acting in defense of themselves,” she said.

But opponents said people should be allowed to defend themselves and others wherever they go, and some said the repeal bill is unconstitutional because the state Constitution recognizes a basic right to self-defense.

“This bill requires individuals to retreat in the face of great peril, if they at all can,” said Earle Kolb of Salem, who uses a wheelchair. “Tell me something: What do you expect somebody in my position to do? ... I cannot exactly get up and run away.”

Some opponents argued women could be especially vulnerable if the law is repealed.

“This bill changed a law that for decades did not give women equal treatment,” said Jenn Coffey, a Republican former state representative from Andover and national legislative affairs director for the Second Amendment Sisters. “If I am faced with a 300-pound man in front of me, who’s defining what I can safely get away from? If the people that come after the crime has been committed decide that, ‘Well, we think you might have been able to safely retreat’ and turn around and charge me, I now have to hire an attorney, incur the expense, incur the turmoil, become a victim of the courts a second time in trying to defend myself.”

The Judiciary Committee didn’t vote on the legislation yesterday. When it does, it will send the recommendation to the full Senate for debate.