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“Stand your ground” bill is a can of worms

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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A bill in the Iowa Legislature could allow gun owners to use deadly force in more situations.

Lawmakers moved the “stand your ground” bill out of committee last week by a 13-9 vote, sending it off to the House floor and evading the legislative funnel. If passed, a civilian would no longer need to attempt retreat from threats before resorting to reasonable deterrents — including deadly force.

The bill’s wording in particular as to what constitutes “reasonable force” is vague; with an accompanying acceptance of “reasonable” belief as grounds for use of force, the expansion of the castle doctrine represented by the bill is dangerous.

As it stands now, Iowa law allows the use of deadly force to prevent a violent crime, without requiring an attempt to escape, if one is threatened in one’s home. House Study Bill 36 expands this protection to cover any place in which a person is legally present. Additionally, the bill presumes that deadly force is justified when it is used against anyone attempting to “unlawfully and forcefully” enter a home, vehicle, or workplace.

While deadly force legally refers to more than simply firearms, the recent shall-issue laws have placed guns clearly in the public eye — and guns are the easiest way to mete out death. The Editorial Board is not opposed to the use of firearms for self-defense, but shooting someone with intent to kill ought to be the last resort in a dangerous situation.

“I think the right to defend yourself from physical harm is a basic fundamental human right,” West Liberty Gun Club President David Kelzenberg said. “If you are threatened with harm, you have a right to protect yourself wherever you might lawfully be.”

Let’s be clear: Gun owners are generally responsible citizens and people, and they must undergo firearm training. But they are not necessarily trained in negotiation and alternative dispute resolution; they frequently lack the ability to de-escalate dangerous situations, particularly if those situations require dealing with people with an altered state of consciousness (who are generally considered more threatening than they actually are). The right to self-defense must be inviolate, but the line between self-defense and vigilantism is blurred when citizens are not required to attempt to de-escalate or flee threatening situations.

The situation becomes muddled further when the nebulous term “reasonable force” is factored in.

University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle believes that there is no specific definition for the term and thinks it largely relies on the individual case. “It would certainly not authorize deadly force in all situations,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“If someone strikes you with a fist, you don’t have the right to pull a gun and shoot them,” Kelzenberg said.

But under the proposed bill, deadly force would be presumed reasonable in situations that involved a break-in at a home, workplace, or vehicle. This enables misunderstandings or overreactions to result in tragedy without the possibility of civil penalty; in fact, it nearly eliminates presumption of innocence when a person is shot while allegedly attempting to forcefully enter another’s space.

There are a whole host of hypothetical situations that just beg to be considered: Does a would-be carjacker really deserve to be shot, possibly fatally? Is a burglar considered a serious threat?

(Burglary is considered a violent crime under the bill, although the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, claims that defense from burglary still falls under the vague “reasonable” restriction.)

Perhaps more importantly, at what point should law enforcement be left to the professionals — without forcing law-abiding citizens to become victims of violent crime? Minor provisions in the bill raise even more concerns: The bill would alter justification for reasonable force from “knowledge” of a forcible felony being perpetrated to “reasonable belief.” In effect, if people have grounds to believe that a forcible felony is being committed — without actual confirmation — they may use whatever force deemed necessary to prevent the completion of the perceived felony. This includes, yes, deadly force.

But deadly force should be the last resort, particularly in the public square where bystanders and police officers may be caught in the crossfire (or get the wrong idea and shoot the wrong person).

Asking people to attempt to escape from an aggressor outside the home before responding with violence is not an assault on victims’ rights. People have the right to defend themselves when in significant danger; however, every attempt must be made to both corroborate and mitigate this danger before escalating the situation.

Ill-defined concepts such as “reasonable force” and “reasonable belief” are not enough to stave off tragedy. The Legislature should reject this open-ended, potentially harmful bill.


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