WEST LEBANON, N.H. — Law enforcement officials from the Upper Valley yesterday expressed concern about New Hampshire's "Stand Your Ground" law, which passed last year over Gov. John Lynch's veto and has garnered new attention because of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida.
A stand-your-ground law — which essentially allows people who believe they are threatened by another party to use deadly force to protect themselves, even in public places where they could safely retreat — first passed in Florida in 2005 and has been pushed nationally by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market group popular with Republican legislators throughout the country.
Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo, who joined with other prosecutors to oppose passage of the New Hampshire version last year, said supporters could never cite an actual scenario where the measure was needed, because under previous law, a shooting in self- defense was still justified if no safe retreat was available.
"We were trying to fix something that was never broken," said Saffo.
The details of the shooting of the 17-year-old Florida teen remain murky, though the neighborhood watchperson who allegedly shot him has told police he was being attacked by Martin.
Saffo said she doesn't know all the facts of the case, but the problem with the theory behind "stand your ground" laws is that "unfortunately, Trayvon Martin can't say what happened. We don't have Trayvon Martin's side of the story."
Claremont Police Chief Alexander Scott said he had not yet encountered a scenario in New Hampshire where the stand-your-ground law played a direct role, but "it's only a matter of time."
Scott said he and the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police "lobbied very strongly" against the law last year, arguing that Florida had seen a "remarkable" increase in violent confrontations since its law went into effect.
"We feared, and I think rightly so, that the same increase will impact New Hampshire," said Scott, who said the so-called "castle doctrine," in which a homeowner can use deadly force defending his own home, evolved from British common law formed over hundreds of years.
"Extending that out to the streets is an invitation to an escalation in violence," Scott said.
New Hampshire's law passed last year over Lynch's veto, with state Reps. Charlene Lovett, R-Claremont and David Kidder, R-New London, and state Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster, the only Upper Valley Republicans opposed to the measure in the veto override.
State Rep. Jennifer Coffey, an Andover Republican who co- sponsored the bill, said in a phone interview yesterday that the law was needed and suggested it would protect women who might be attacked and raped in a public parking garage.
"I'm glad New Hampshire has this law. Like I said, nobody should be a victim of a crime and then be revictimized by facing a criminal charge if they are trying to defend themselves," said Coffey, a senior advisor to Pro-Gun New Hampshire and national director of legislative affairs for Second Amendment Sisters.
Asked if she carried a gun routinely, Coffey, replied, "That's a personal question," akin to asking her age.
The main sponsor in the state Senate, Republican David Boutin of Hookset, didn't return phone messages yesterday, but testified that the legislation "is not a gun bill but a self-defense bill," according to the hearing report from the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2011.
State Rep. Steve Cunningham, R-Croydon, an NRA-licensed instructor, also testified in favor of the bill, saying he thought the duty to retreat made sense when he was a young man, but that as his knees weaken with age, retreating may not always be possible, according to the summary.
But with police and prosecutors strongly opposed to the measure, Lynch vetoed the bill, as he had identical provisions in 2006, saying, it was "a dramatic and unwarranted change in New Hampshire law that would legalize the inappropriate use of deadly force and jeopardize public safety." He was later overridden.
Boutin said during his testimony that he did not introduce the bill on behalf of any group, but the measure was championed by Pro- Gun New Hampshire.
The progressive watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy has documented that the NRA pushed for the Florida law, then shared the wording of the bill with ALEC, the conservative group that has gained new influence in dozens of Statehouses around the country.
Brendan Fischer, a law fellow with the Wisconsin-based Center for Media group, said a template of the "Stand Your Ground" bill was offered by ALEC to lawmakers around the country, and that at least two dozen states have passed laws with elements of the conservative group's language.
"They put it out there," Fischer said.
The Florida law appears to be different from New Hampshire's in at least one key element: Florida says police cannot arrest a person for using deadly force in self-defense "unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful," according to its statute.
New Hampshire includes civil immunity protections from someone acting in self-defense. On the criminal side, it "doesn't create the presumption that the force was reasonable," Fischer said.
In other words, the Florida law creates a presumption that the person was innocent, while the New Hampshire measure expands the scenarios from previous state law under which protecting oneself is a valid legal defense in a criminal trial
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Matthew Houde, a Plainfield Democrat, opposed the "Stand Your Ground" law, and said taking away the requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat if they safely can changed the dynamic.
"To me, the biggest concerns are the situation escalation. If someone withdraws, that's going to defuse the situation," said Houde, who is also worried about innocent bystanders who may be hit by gunfire in a "Stand Your Ground" confrontation.
Scott, the Claremont police chief who is also an attorney and has taught policing and criminal procedure at colleges in the Twin States, said "Stand Your Ground" threatens to create a bigger problem in terms of more violence.
"We'd really like to know why the NRA is spending so much time and money lobbying this law through," Scott said. "Obviously, things were working before because the overall crime rate had been dropping. I'm not sure why they would want to change that trend."