Ohio lawmakers are closer than ever to passing a so-called “stand your ground” bill that would expand gun rights by relaxing a person’s duty to retreat before using lethal force in self-defense.
Supporters say the bill corrects unjust laws that force crime victims to make a decision between fighting or escaping an assailant, then makes survivors argue their self-defense decision in court instead of being presumed innocent.
“You shouldn’t have to run and hide and wait for the person to kill you anyway,” said Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones.
Opponents say the bill gives permission for gun owners to shoot anyone they deem dangerous, even if escape is an option. They fear the bill could allow for deaths like that of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old unarmed African American killed in 2013 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who followed the teen and reported to police that Martin looked suspicious. Zimmerman did not raise a “stand your ground” defense, but jury instructions detailed the 2005 Florida law. The jury found Zimmerman not guilty.
“You’re giving permission to shoot anybody who you feel you need to shoot,” said Springfield NAACP President Denise Williams.
Ohio House Speaker Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, said he expects a floor vote on House Bill 228 this week before lawmakers leave Columbus on an extended break. If the bill passes, the measure will still need to clear the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate before surmounting a promised veto from Republican Gov. John Kasich. Overriding a veto requires a three-fifths majority vote in both the House and Senate before the legislative session ends in December.
In other words: The bill still has a long way to go before becoming law. But it’s the first time such a measure has made it this far in Ohio’s legislative process, amid shifting political attitudes toward guns and the rights of gun owners.
What’s in the bill?
The bill would shift the burden of proof in self-defense cases from the defendant to the prosecution and remove the legal “duty to retreat” when faced with threats or perceived threats — a provision opposed by the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and supported by the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.
Convictions would likely decrease if the bill becomes law, because it would be more difficult for prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person did not use deadly force in self-defense, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission. The independent commission’s analysis forecasts the law would provide prosecutors an incentive to plea such cases down or forego certain criminal cases altogether if the new burden of proof cannot be met.
Changing the law would put Ohio in line with nearly half of U.S. states. Twenty-four states have no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place where someone is lawfully present, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures . States with such laws include all of Ohio’s five neighbors: Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Aside from stand your ground, the bill seeks a variety of other changes to firearms law. It would, among other things, prohibit landlords from requiring tenants to agree to firearm restrictions, reduce certain vehicle-related firearms offenses to minor misdemeanors, eliminate a concealed carry licensee’s requirement to keep hands in plain sight during a law enforcement stop, and expand the circumstances for unlawful weapons transactions.
Why this bill now?
House Bill 228 is the first pro-gun rights bill to advance to a floor vote since the mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, which prompted national protests and school walkouts.
The bill comes amid changing attitudes toward gun rights across the nation — and in Columbus.
Gallup Poll found in March that, “In the wake of the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, Americans’ desire for stricter gun laws has reached levels not seen since December 1993.” Support for gun control is strongest among Democrats and independents, while 41 percent of Republicans favor it, the poll found.
Ohio lawmakers have steadily increased gun rights in Ohio since 2004, adopting and expanding a concealed carry weapons program. In 2008, then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, signed into law Ohio’s castle doctrine that presumes someone using lethal force against someone unlawfully in their home or vehicle is doing so in self-defense.
But Kasich — once a favorite of the National Rifle Association who has signed gun bills into law — now favors restrictions on bump stocks, high-capacity magazines, assault weapons and a mechanism to allow court orders for temporary seizure of guns from people who appear to be a danger to themselves or others.
What both sides say
The bill, with 38 co-sponsors in the House, has backing from pro-gun rights groups such as Ohio Gun Owners and Buckeye Firearms Association but it is opposed by the ACLU of Ohio, League of Women Voters of Ohio, Moms Demand Action, Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence and March for Our Lives.
The bill’s opponents say supporters are presenting the duty to retreat as a false choice between life and death.
“It’s interesting to us to see promoters of this bill describe it (duty to retreat) as having to talk nice to an assailant — the law doesn’t say that at all,” said Toby Hoover, Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence founder. “The law right now doesn’t say you have to run and hide and have the person shoot you.”
“The whole thing (the House’s bill) is set up to make it much easier for people to react out of fear and react out of anger,” Hoover said. “It sets up a mental permission to go ahead and take action that I think is very dangerous in this society.”
Supporters say the bill will clear up a legal gray area faced by would-be crime victims in moments of danger.
“Why are we putting the duty on the victim of a crime? That is wrong,” said Jim Irvine, Buckeye Firearms Association president. “We should not be putting duties on someone who is about to suffer — and is suffering — a legal force threat?”
“When else do we have a duty to jump through a hoop before you defend your life?”
This story has been updated to clarify that George Zimmerman did not raise a “stand your ground” defense argument while facing charges for shooting Trayvon Martin. Jurors, who found Zimmerman not guilty, received instructions detailing Florida’s “stand your ground” law, but the extent to which the jury considered the 2005 law in vindicating Zimmerman remains unclear.
CLOSER LOOK: GOVERNOR CANDIDATES
This newspaper asked Ohio’s governor candidates to weigh in on the Stand Your Ground bill in the Ohio House.
Richard Cordray (D): “I agree with law enforcement and prosecutors that this bill would make it harder for them to do their jobs and keep Ohioans safe. It is well known that I respect and support the rights of responsible gun owners. At the same time, I believe we need to pursue measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and we need to improve safety in our communities, churches, and schools.”
Mike DeWine (R): “This bill is still going through the legislative process, but I support the Second Amendment and believe that Ohioans who are threatened with injury or death have the right to stand their ground and defend their lives and property.”
Contact these reporters at Will.Garbe@coxinc.com or Laura.Bischoff@coxinc.com.