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A House committee began review Thursday of legislation to expand legal protections for people who threaten, maim or kill someone believed to have been posing a lethal threat to them.

Current law says Ohioans have no “duty to retreat” if someone breaks into their home or vehicle before acting in self-defense. House Bill 381, if passed, would build on this, significantly walking back the duty to retreat for those who use force in self-defense, so long as they’re not doing anything illegal at the time.

The bill would expand legal protections and allowable circumstances for people who exercise the deadly use of force in self-defense so long as they “reasonably believe” they were doing so to protect themselves.

Lastly, the bill lays out a path to immunity for both criminal and civil defendants who claim their use of force or deadly force was justified.

It guarantees them a right to a pretrial immunity hearing where a judge grants self-defense immunity unless prosecutors prove by “clear and convincing evidence” (a lower standard than needed for a conviction) the alleged crime was not conducted for purposes of self-defense.

A near identical bill is proceeding through committee review in the state Senate as well. 

Speaking to the House Criminal Justice committee Thursday, lead sponsors Reps. Candice Keller, R-Middletown, and Ron Hood, R-Asheville, said the bill is a commonsense extension of self-defense laws and rights enshrined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“As representatives, we are here to protect the rights and responsibilities of our citizens, not to infringe them or, over time and political circumstance, garnish them away,” Keller said to the committee.

Democrats on the panel, however, questioned what they characterized as the low bar required to justify the use of force.

They argued the bill would spur every homicide suspect to claim self-defense, presenting prosecutors with another legal hurdle to clear.

This would incentivize prosecutors away from tougher cases, they said, and let murderers walk free.  

“Isn’t everybody that commits a homicide in the state of Ohio going to take advantage of this pretrial immunity hearing,” asked Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, ranking Democrat on the committee. “Why wouldn’t they?”

Hood said the point of the hearing is to avoid dragging an innocent person through the scrutiny and expensive nature of a criminal trial.

Democrats also questioned the need for the legislation. Without the steady stream of mass violence that has checkered the last decade in America, they asked the sponsors to point to any instance of an improper prosecution of an Ohioan acting in self-defense.

Keller and Hood said they couldn’t at the time, but as much would come out in further committee review.

The bill does, however, provide exceptions. Self-defense, under the bill, could not be claimed by people during the commission of a violent felony; anyone who provokes a person who, in turn, threatens that person; a person who uses force to resist arrest; and others. 

Ohio Republicans sought to pass similar legislation in 2018, but backed down under threat of veto from then-Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican.

Similar legislation advanced through the Ohio Senate last week. There, it sparked opposition from prosecutors, parents, a Cleveland city councilman, and students.

“This will lead to miscarriages of justice,” said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

A previous hearing fielding supporting testimony drew gun advocates and enthusiasts who said the bill would empower gun owners to protect themselves in a dangerous world.

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.