By Jake Zuckerman and Ohio Capital Journal
The Ohio Senate passed a “stand your ground” bill Friday, sending to Gov. Mike DeWine a proposal that would rescind a requirement that gun owners first seek to elude a confrontation before responding with bullets.
If passed, Senate Bill 175 would hand a major victory to gun advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association and the Buckeye Firearms Association who have pushed the proposal for years.
Conversely, passage comes as a loss for prosecutors, law enforcement associations, and anti-gun violence activists who testified against the bill.
The legislation landing on DeWine’s desk marks a major legislative loss for the governor, who put his political muscle behind a comparatively modest gun control package after a mass shooting in 2019 in Dayton left nine dead and 27 injured.
Legislative leadership never put DeWine’s bill up for a vote. However, they fast-tracked stand your ground, circumventing any committee vote and passing the bill through both the state House and Senate in the dying hours of the legislative session.
Should DeWine sign SB 175, he would remove from state law the “duty to retreat” from a confrontation, which compels people with a reasonable belief of a threat to bodily harm to reasonably try to escape a showdown before engaging with force.
In 2008, lawmakers removed the duty to retreat in a confrontation in one’s home or vehicle, a concept known as the “castle doctrine.” Senate Bill 175 would expand the castle doctrine to almost any place where a person is lawfully present.
If a person does shoot someone else and claim self-defense, the legislation says a court cannot consider the possibility of retreat when assessing whether that person used force in self-defense.
“It’s just a very simple thing to take out of the law that will help average citizens should they come into a situation where they have to defend themselves,” said Sen. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott.
Democrats criticized the proposal, saying it foments a showdown culture by alleviating people of a reasonable requirement to try to defuse a situation before escalating it.
They also said the bill will disproportionately harm Black people, who are more likely to be perceived as threats and less likely to be taken at their word should they mount a claim of self-defense.
“Removing the duty to retreat leads to the unnecessary escalation of tense situations,” said Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati.
A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in opposition, notably including the judiciary chairman, Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson Twp.
He said it doesn’t make sense to limit what a jury can or can’t consider (i.e. whether a shooter could have retreated first).
Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, gave a floor speech against the bill, arguing it sends a dangerous signal to Ohioans.
“The symbolism is, don’t think for one minute that we’re going to back off from our love of guns, or back off in any way that suggests there might be limits to the Second Amendment,” she said.
Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., spoke in support of the bill, characterizing it as a logical extension of the right to bear arms.
“We are clarifying the rules of how that right will be properly executed in this state,” he said.
Following passage, all eyes are on DeWine.
“Instead of dealing with the multiple crises facing Ohio, Republicans in the legislature are doing everything they can to make our state less safe,” said Michael McGovern, a spokesman with ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group.
“Now we will find out if Gov. DeWine is serious about addressing gun violence in Ohio. If he does not veto this bill, he loses all moral authority on this issue.”
The Ohio chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun control group formed after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., said anything short of a veto from DeWine is an “abdication of duty.”
“Ohioans have been crystal clear, we don’t want to live in a state with Stand Your Ground. Gov. DeWine, this is your chance to do something — veto Stand Your Ground,” said Lisa Voigt, a volunteer with the Ohio chapter. “Stand Your Ground is not only dangerous, it’s also unnecessary — Ohio self-defense law already protects people in imminent danger with no other option. Stand Your Ground is about protecting vigilantes and people who would rather shoot than walk away from an argument and would put more lives — especially Black lives — at further risk of gun violence.”
Rob Sexton, a Buckeye Firearms Association spokesman, said his organization has been pushing for stand your ground for about a decade. As Ohio has broadened its gun rights during that period, he said the counter-arguments that the new policies will lead to a “wild west” type culture have never panned out.
“When it comes to duty to retreat, we’re really talking about evening the playing field for the victim,” he said.
Speaking to reporters last week, DeWine signaled a distaste for the bill but didn’t specify whether he would veto SB 175. A DeWine spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
A DeWine veto would likely be the end of the line for the bill. There aren’t enough votes for an override in either chamber; the legislative session wraps up at year’s end at which point all unfinished legislation is dead; and DeWine has 10 days (not counting Sundays or holidays) after receiving the bill before he must act on it.
Stand your ground laws first gained traction in the 1980s, then nicknamed “make my day” laws after the iconic line from Clint Eastwood in the “Dirty Harry” film series. Eastwood utters the phrase after thwarting a diner robbery in a gunfight.
Since then, at least 25 states have passed such laws, according to a policy brief from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2018, the Ohio House and Senate voted to override Gov. John Kasich on a similar gun policy issue, amending the law to place the burden of disproving a self-defense claim on the prosecution.
That same year, guns killed 1,555 Ohioans, according to data from the CDC.
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.
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