Eight years to the day after George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager and thrust the phrase into the public lexicon, an Ohio statehouse committee soldiered forward with its review of “stand your ground” legislation.
The House Criminal Justice committee continued its consideration Wednesday of the bill, which would remove Ohioans’ “duty to retreat” before using deadly force in response to a perceived attack.
The bill also offers certain legal protections for those who shoot and possibly kill in self-defense.
Lawmakers fielded about 80 minutes of proponent testimony from gun owners who characterized the legislation as an extension of their natural right to defend themselves from aggressors.
Meanwhile, a throng of people in red “Moms Demand Action” — a group seeking to curb gun violence in America — shirts sat in silent protest in the hearing room.
“I and others are simply asking you to remove the duty to retreat from a reasonable and honestly believed threat of bodily injury or death,” said Jeffry Smith, who said he has worked as a basic pistol instructor for the NRA since 2004.
Current law provides for what’s referred to as “castle doctrine,” meaning there’s no duty to retreat from an aggressor who invades one’s home or vehicle. House Bill 381 would essentially expand the castle doctrine to any place where one is lawfully present.
While the anniversary of Zimmerman’s shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin went unremarked, Chris Dorr, who runs the Ohio Gun Owners association, briefly referred to Zimmerman’s prosecution as a “sham trial” before laying out his support for the bill.
Dorr said it’s the perpetrators of violent crime who should be retreating, not those seeking self-defense. He also praised a provision of the legislation that grants immunity to a person found to be justified in his or her use of lethal force.
At a hearing last month, committee Democrats balked at the section, including language that would require plaintiffs to cover legal fees incurred by defendants in a civil suit if the court grants the self-defense immunity.
“The last thing the victim of a violent attack should face after successfully defending themselves against that attack, is a civil suit by the attacker or their family looking to get rich on the backs of their intended victims,” Dorr said.
Dorr wrapped up his testimony with an unprompted remark comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to terrorism.
One man, Gene Moore, told lawmakers he carries a weapon 24/7. However, he worries about situations like entering the Capitol in which he’s not allowed to bear arms.
“So walking from the parking lot way down the street up to here, I had a better potential for being a victim,” he said. “I have no compunction against dropping somebody who threatens me or my friend while we’re on the street.”
In previous hearings, law enforcement officials and prosecutors have voiced concerns about the bill.
According to a Columbus Dispatch report, Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association Executive Director Louis Tobin emphasized that current law only requires a “reasonable” duty to retreat.
“I think these laws are a response to imaginary problems,” he said. “Prosecutors don’t want to prosecute people who are using force in self-defense. … They let acts of justifiable force go regularly.”
Citing research from the RAND Corporation, representatives of different gun violence prevention groups issued a news release after the hearing criticizing the bill.
“It is disappointing to see Ohio lawmakers continue to fast-track Stand Your Ground legislation that doesn’t work to prevent violent crime and has led to more homicides and more gun violence in states where it has been enacted,” said Mackenzie Mueller, a volunteer with the Miami University Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Legislators should focus on common-sense gun safety solutions that work.”
Also in the release, Shela Blanchard said these laws disproportionately affect people of color, and it’s disappointing to see the bill’s progress.
“Ohio lawmakers should focus on common-sense gun safety measures, like Ohioans are demanding,” she said.
Zimmerman’s attorney did not mount a stand your ground defense at the trial, which ended an acquittal. However, the Washington Post reported the law compelled a judge to instruct jurors that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and could stand his ground if he felt threatened.
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.