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Empire editorial: Self defense law change seems unnecessary

Posted: February 21, 2011 - 8:03am

A bill before legislators that seeks to expand an individual’s right to use deadly force against others in the defense of life sounds reasonable on the surface, but seems like a small bite at a larger problem that could create unknown consequences.

What is needed is a re-examination of self-defense laws and a simple clarification that does not require a member of the general public who may be under extreme duress and in fear of his or her own life to tally off a legal checklist during some short and crucial seconds.

This law seems to add one more consideration to a checklist: Do I have a right to be where I am?

Alaska law now demands that a person retreat from the area instead of using deadly force if they can do so with a guarantee of personal safety and the complete safety of others.

Police officers and people on their own property, or who are guests or designees of a property owner, already have a right to use deadly force when their lives or the life of a child or children are threatened. In short, if you’re in your own home and a robber tries to kill you, there is no duty for you to run out the back door.

House Bill 80 by Big Lakes Republican Rep. Mark Neuman takes a huge step with just a few words, adding “or in any place where a person has a right to be” to the law governing when one must retreat.

Under HB 80, one can be walking down a public street, encounter a dangerous situation and have the same right to defend oneself as one has in one’s home. But what if one is on another’s property, without permission, crossing a field as a shortcut? The danger from an armed attacker would be no less, but this law wouldn’t do much.

Another factor is the potential cost of modifying just a part of this code. No one can say for sure if giving someone the same self-defense rights on a public sidewalk that one enjoys in one’s own home will cause more prosecutions or fewer, whether its eventual interpretation will cause people who thought they were in the right to wind up in court.

None of the constructions in current law are perfect for the real world, and when push literally comes to shove there should be clear guidelines. The state should define self defense in simple and clear terms. Until then, the current law as written seems to be working well.

State Libertarians favor a broad brush approach, party chair Scott Kohlhaas last week suggesting, “The entire statute should be eliminated and replaced with a simple statement that a person may use deadly force when in that person’s judgment it is necessary to defend life.”

While a broad definition like that will draw much debate, we think it’s time for that debate to start again.

While HB 80 seeks to attack part of a perceived problem, it seems to us to be a solution in search of a problem — one that might further muddy already murky waters.

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