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N.H. AG: Review Self-Defense Law

Concord — Attorney General Joe Foster called for the Legislature to “take another look” at repealing the “stand your ground” law to prevent a future confrontation with disastrous consequences.

During an interview Wednesday, Foster admitted the overwhelming vote by the state Senate in May to block this House-passed repeal bill (HB 135) was telling, but said the 2011 law should be undone.

“I think they should in due course take another look at it,” Foster said.

The Nashua prosecutor said his comments aren’t a knee-jerk reaction to the verdict last week in the Florida case of George Zimmerman, acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Defense lawyers did not invoke the Florida “stand your ground” law in that case, but they would not rule out using it if Zimmerman was sued in civil court for being responsible for Martin’s death.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday his office was exploring whether to pursue civil action against Zimmerman and condemned the growing number of states that adopted “stand your ground” laws that allow those under attack to respond with deadly force.

“My sense is the law that had been in place before was adequate, and that now, we have a statute that makes the work of law enforcement that much more difficult if there is a confrontation in the streets,” Foster said.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said he remains convinced the Legislature would reject any repeal if it would come back up between now and the 2014 elections.

The Democratically-controlled House passed the repeal bill by five votes; while the GOP-led Senate responded by voting 19-5 to table the bill or set it aside.

Senate Democrats had split 6-5 against the repeal, including the two representing Nashua, Sens. Bette Lasky, of Nashua, and Peggy Gilmour, of Hollis.

“The Legislature looked at this very carefully and concluded, as I have the past two years, that this law has not been a problem because it was narrowly drawn and appropriate in a world that the public perceives as not as safe as it once was,” Bradley said during a telephone interview.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, said Foster’s comments are helpful, and he’ll decide by September whether to sponsor a repeal bill for the 2014 session.

“It’s really a question of public sentiment, talking to friends on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate and determining whether bringing it back up again next year would be viable,” Shurtleff said. “One of the challenges we faced this past year was there was a lot of misinformation about what repeal would have done. I got emails and calls from people that said this would take away their right to use deadly force in their own home and of course that was not true.”

Until the current law took effect Nov. 13, 2011, it was lawful for someone to use deadly force only in his or her home or on adjacent land to it.

Otherwise, someone facing deadly force out in public had a duty to retreat to safety as long as that was possible.

New Hampshire became the 31st state in the country to adopt a version of “stand your ground,” and it’s also the law in Maine and Rhode Island.

The law ended this duty to retreat and lets anyone use deadly force to defend against a deadly threat “anywhere he or she has a right to be.”

The major exception is if the person using the deadly force is the initial aggressor.

In 2011, the GOP super-majority that ran both branches of the Legislature at the time were able to pass this law over the veto of Gov. John Lynch and against the opposition from numerous leaders in local and state law enforcement.

Gov. Maggie Hassan vocally supported repeal of this law during her campaign for governor last fall.

After taking office, Hassan did not actively promote its repeal.

“Governor Hassan’s highest priority is ensuring public safety, and she continues to join with New Hampshire’s law enforcement community in supporting repeal of the so called ‘stand your ground’ measure because they believe it is unsafe for people to open fire in public places when there are safer options available,” said Communications Director Marc Goldberg in a statement Wednesday.

Republican State Chairwoman Jennifer Horn of Nashua praised lawmakers for standing firm in support of someone’s self-defense rights.

Bradley, a former congressman and potential candidate for U.S. Senate next year, said Holder’s response to the verdict came as no surprise.

“I think that was a political overreaction, never let a crisis go to waste to try and score points,” Bradley added.