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Lynch vetoes bill to expand deadly force in NH

By Norma Love
Associated Press / July 13, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch vetoed a bill Wednesday that would expand a person's right to use deadly force in self-defense without first attempting to retreat.

The Democratic governor blocked a similar bill in 2006, but the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the current measure by enough votes that it could overturn the veto. His actions five years ago were supported by law enforcement, including then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, a Republican and now U.S. senator, who called it a threat to public safety.

Associations representing police chiefs and sheriffs urged the governor to veto the latest bill for many of the same reasons. In his veto message, Lynch cited opposition by law enforcement as a reason to reject the bill.

"(The bill) would unleash the potential for increasing deadly violence in our communities," he said. "It would allow the use of deadly force on street corners, in shopping malls, public parks and in retail stores. Drug dealers and other felons who brandish weapons will be further emboldened to use their weapons, while prosecution of those criminals will be made more difficult because of this bill's expansion of the right to use deadly force."

Supporters argue people should not worry about being prosecuted when making split-second decisions to defend themselves or others. House Speaker William O'Brien said he expects the Legislature will override the veto.

"Both the U.S. and New Hampshire Constitution clearly protect our citizens' right to own and carry firearms," said O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon. "This commonsense bill simply ensures that in New Hampshire, lawful gun owners can defend themselves when they are threatened."

Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro predicted the Senate would vote to override the veto.

The bill would allow people to use deadly force in self-defense and in public to defend others anyplace they have a right to be. Current law allows people to use deadly force in their homes and in public to defend others, but in public only if they can't safely retreat. Deadly force is not limited to use of a firearm, but could be a knife, baseball bat or other weapon.

Opponents fear innocent bystanders could be hurt by well-meaning, gun-toting citizens.

In a letter to Lynch, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and the New Hampshire Sheriff's Association said the bill would dramatically alter the balance between the right to use deadly force and the sanctity of life and safety of the public. They pointed out that some critics of the current law incorrectly claim it is too difficult to prove the shooting was in self-defense. They said they must disprove a claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

New Hampshire law currently allows use of deadly force inside the home in defense against certain crimes, such as rape. Deadly force also can be used in public to defend someone else or to stop a rape, kidnapping or serious crime. The law requires citizens to retreat if they can safely, except at home, when they are not the aggressor.

The bill also grants civil immunity to using force against assailants under some circumstances.

It also repeals a minimum sentencing requirement for felony convictions that include possession, use or attempted use of a firearm. In addition, the bill says brandishing a weapon isn't considered deadly force under the law. Lynch said he supports those changes and would sign them if sent to him in a new bill.

The brandishing provision was inspired by Moultonborough farmer Ward Bird's incarceration on a mandatory minimum three-year sentence for showing a gun when a trespasser refused to leave his property. Bird was jailed in November and released in February after the Executive Council took the rare step of commuting his sentence.

Lynch's opposition five years ago led to a compromise that softened the prohibition against drawing a gun on someone, but Republicans began efforts to expand gun rights further when they took control of the House and Senate in November. The bill is built on the Castle Doctrine, which says a person has no duty to retreat from intruders at home before using deadly force.

The bill would expand that principle to using deadly force in public anyplace the person has a right to be. The principle is known as the Stand Your Ground Principle. More than two dozen states have passed either the Castle Doctrine, Stand Your Ground or both.