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Mike Freeman

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Gun bill gets thumbs-down

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 17, 2012 - 5:59 AM

Police and prosecutors took a united stand Thursday against a bill that would expand the definition of self-defense and the use of deadly force for civilians who feel threatened in their homes and cars and in public places.

"Standing here is all law enforcement, all Minnesota's prosecutors," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told a State Capitol news conference. "We unanimously oppose this bill."

The Minneapolis and St. Paul police chiefs, representatives of the state's police chiefs and rank-and-file officers, and the state County Attorneys Association joined Freeman in denouncing the bill as a threat to officers who knock on doors and chase suspects through yards.

Their target is a deadly-force bill called the "castle doctrine" that appears headed for approval by the Republican-controlled Legislature, and which the full Senate plans to take up next Thursday. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, rewrites state law for civilians who use deadly force in self-defense. It is a top national priority of the National Rifle Association, which has encouraged its members to lobby the Legislature to approve it.

Gov. Mark Dayton, whose signature would be needed for the bill to become law, told WCCO-Radio Thursday that he relies on law enforcement for his position on this issue, and that this bill would give citizens "free license." But he also said when he lived in Minneapolis, he had two loaded revolvers in a lockbox and was prepared to use them if necessary to defend his family. He said he hoped there could be a compromise police and prosecutors could accept.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who opposes the bill, said that under current law, citizens already have the right to protect themselves and their families from serious threats in their own homes. But he said when people are in public, the law requires them to "first avoid the danger, if that is reasonably possible." In all cases, he said, a person's decision to shoot "must be one that a reasonable person would have made, given the gravity of the situation."

The "castle doctrine" bill, he said, changes the legal justification for shooting to "what the person exercising deadly force perceives the threat to be." Law enforcement officials said that could be used to justify just about any killing in which the shooter claimed to feel threatened. The bill also expands the definition of "dwelling" where self-defense force can be used to cars, boats and even hotel rooms and tents. It also does away with the duty to retreat when threatened in public.

"This law would give our citizens a greater right to use deadly force than we currently provide to law enforcement officers in our state, with less review,'' said Backstrom.

Hoffman and Cornish said the changes are needed to protect and extend gun-owners' rights. Neither cited specific problems with the current self-defense law. "In towns and cities where there are people that legally own and use their guns, crime goes down," said Hoffman. Cornish said the prevalence of gun-free zones and businesses that have banned guns puts citizens at risk. "We're just trying to afford people some protection," he said.

Both legislators said they expect the bill to pass the Legislature and reach the governor's desk.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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