"Castle doctrine" laws are criticized as giving a free pass to shoot in name of self-defense.
Colleen Sarnowski of West Bend is comforted by Regina Kudek of Kewaskum during a candle light vigil to honor Bo Morrison at the Riverside Park in West Bend, Wis. on March 14, 2012. Morrison was shot and killed two weeks ago after a resident thought Morrison was breaking into his home.
Six days after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida, a young man in Wisconsin sneaked into a stranger's house to hide from police after partying next door.
Minutes later, Bo Morrison was dead, the victim of a gunshot fired by a homeowner who thought the 20-year-old stepping from the dark of his three-season porch was a threat to his life and his family's safety.
While details of the cases vary, the killings of two young, unarmed men 1,300 miles apart have stirred passions in a fierce and bitter national debate over the rapid escalation of self-defense or "stand your ground" laws.
Maybe nowhere outside Florida, where "stand your ground" took root in 2005, has the issue been more scrutinized in recent weeks than in Wisconsin. There, embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker approved legislation late last year that gives people additional legal protection if they are prosecuted for using deadly force against anyone who they believe unlawfully enters their dwelling, business or vehicle and is perceived to be a threat.
Four months after the "castle doctrine" took effect and weeks after Martin and Morrison were killed, several Wisconsin lawmakers are crafting legislation to repeal it.
"What happened with Bo, what happened with Trayvon Martin -- the public is paying attention to this now," said Chris Larson, a Democrat state senator representing Milwaukee's south suburbs. "I don't think they were when this bill was passed here and when these 'shoot first, ask questions never' laws were passed across the country."
The push to expand Wisconsin's law has been years in the making. But it wasn't until Republicans took control of Legislature and governor's office in November 2010 that supporters of the bill had the votes to make it happen.
Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, a Democrat from Madison, said the bill was part of a "broad conservative agenda" pushed by "very, very powerful" special interest groups that included the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization made up of more than 2,000 state legislators and backed by big business that develops policy positions on a variety of issues.
One goal in Wisconsin, Roys said, was to remove "reasonable restrictions or standards about the use of firearms."
"There is a very large agenda at play here in Wisconsin on everything from guns to business tax breaks," said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat who opposed the bill. "I'd bet a lot of money it was legislation a lot of Republican legislators didn't come up with on their own."
Darren LaSorte, an NRA lobbyist who worked on the bill, did not return calls to comment. But Rep. Dean Kaufert, a Republican from Neenah and bill author, said it was generated by "many people" who told him the state's "self-defense laws needed to be strengthened. I'm not a member of ALEC," he added. "This is one that didn't come from there."
Over the past decade nearly 20 states have enacted "stand your ground" laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws vary in detail but generally stipulate that anyone who faces an imminent threat to his or her life or fears for his or her safety has a right to use a weapon and has "no duty to retreat," regardless of where the attack occurs.
More than two dozen states, including Wisconsin, have more restrictive "castle" laws, which limit the "no duty to retreat" provision to a person's property, or castle.
"It doesn't go as far as 'stand your ground,' but it creates these presumptions that if you shoot, you are justified," said Gregory O'Meara, associate professor of law at Marquette University.
In Minnesota, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill this session that would have expanded the state's self-defense law to one similar in scope to Wisconsin's -- offering protections beyond just the home to include yards, porches, pools and tents.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, the House sponsor, said the bill was designed to clarify what a property owner can do if threatened.
"People are so confused, so paranoid if they guess wrong," he said. "They think 'Can you defend yourself or not?'"
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton later vetoed the bill, citing law enforcement concern that it could endanger officers by emboldening homeowners to "shoot first" into darkened yards and garages.
Cornish said the bill "will definitely" be back.
In Wisconsin, a push to repeal
While angry debate and protest dominated Wisconsin politics last year after Walker moved to cut state spending and balance the budget by curtailing collective bargaining rights for most public employees, discussion on the castle bill was subdued. Few people testified at a May public hearing, and only one -- O'Meara, the law professor -- spoke in opposition. The bill passed easily with bipartian support.
"When you go downstairs and you hear someone breaking into your house you should have a clear idea of what you can and can't do," said Rep. Dean Knudson, a Republican from Hudson who calls the bill "common sense.'' The old law -- that one could use force later considered reasonable -- "got into a gray area too often," while the new one "makes it pretty clear."
But critics say existing state law contains a provision justifying action if a person believes they are in "imminent danger." The new law, Roys said, encourages a "shoot first" mentality that gives homeowners "a free pass" if they use deadly force.
Criticism intensified last month after Martin's death and again after Morrison was shot by a Slinger, Wis., homeowner, Adam Kind. Morrison, who was required to remain sober pending the outcome of several criminal cases against him, hid in Kind's three-season porch to avoid being cited for underage drinking at a garage party next door.
Outrage over the shooting sparked public rallies and calls for repeal.
'Absolving people of responsibility'
Late last month, Washington County Wisconsin District Attorney Mark Bensen cleared Kind, noting in a 27-page report that he acted "lawfully in self defense," after hearing a loud banging noise from the back of his house at 2 a.m. Kind told police he thought the intruder, who stood up near a refrigerator, raised a hand and stepped toward him, was a threat.
"The homeowner stated that he did not think about it, he just reacted," Bensen wrote.
Castle law critics say that's precisely the concern.
"What you are doing here is you are now absolving people of responsibility, of saying to themselves: 'Am I truly in danger here or is this a drunk who came home to the wrong apartment?'" said Brian Austin, a Madison police detective and a former prosecutor. "I really think it's terrible public policy to reduce the thresholds where people don't have to do any decisionmaking in regards to pulling that trigger."
Larson and several lawmakers who opposed it are determined to repeal it when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
"If I have to fight on this for two years or 10 years, I'm going to do that," Larson said. "I'm going to make sure we get rid of this backwards law."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425