BRAINERD, Minn.—Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature recently introduced a "Stand Your Ground" bill that would make it easier for gun owners to legally kill someone in self-defense.
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, introduced Senate File 292 in the Senate, but the original is a House of Representatives bill authored by Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, House File 238.
Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, is one of the sponsors of the House version.
Although the formal title is the "Defense of Dwelling and Person Act", both Ruud and Heintzeman described it as a "Stand Your Ground" bill.
Stand Your Ground laws eliminate the legal expectation that people should try to get away when confronted with aggression outside the home, rather than use force. This expectation is called the "common-law duty to retreat" and is used to determine whether people truly were justified in using deadly force or not.
"Stand Your Ground" laws drew nationwide attention when Florida's version of the law played a role in the case of George Zimmerman after he shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
The existing law in Minnesota, which gives the right to use lethal force to prevent "great bodily harm or death," or within one's home in order to prevent a felony, is expanded to authorize lethal force under an additional circumstance.
Under the new proposed law, people would also be authorized to kill in order to stop what they reasonably believe is a "forcible felony" in most locations, even outside their home. The bill defines forcible felony as a crime punishable by a jail sentence of more than one year, and which includes the use or threat of force. It lists examples of offenses that fit under the criteria, ranging from first degree murder to crimes like arson and third degree assault.
The bill also lowers the threshold for killing to prevent "great bodily harm or death" to simply "substantial bodily harm." Under the definition of the term in a separate, existing Minnesota law, substantial bodily harm is "bodily injury which involves a temporary but substantial disfigurement, or which causes a temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ, or which causes a fracture of any bodily member."
Duel in a parking garage
Heintzeman posed the hypothetical scenario of what someone is supposed to do if attacked outside their home.
"I think people are worried that if they're in a parking ramp and somebody approaches them with a knife or a weapon or a bottle or something, even a gun, are they within their right to defend themselves?" he said. "You tell me .... because Castle Doctrine can be interpreted at times (to say) no, you have an obligation to get away rather than defend yourself in that situation."
Heintzeman asked rhetorically where someone could flee to in a parking ramp.
"Do you risk going to jail and defend your family, or do you defend yourself in another way?" he said.
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan brought up the same scenario of being attacked in a parking ramp to explain why he thought the bill was a bad idea. In Minnesota, people already have the right to use deadly force in self-defense outside the home if deadly force is being meted against them by their assailant—but they have a legal duty to try and get away first if they can.
"Let's say (you're) standing in a parking garage and there's someone 100 yards away, and they pull a knife and put it over their head," Ryan supposed. "They're saying 'I'm going to kill you' and they come running at you. You're right next your car where you can quickly open it up, close it, lock the car and start driving away. That would be a reasonable duty to escape, right? Under this bill, you could just pull out your gun and shoot them, because there's no duty to retreat anymore."
The Minnesota County Attorneys Association opposed a Stand Your Ground bill when it was introduced earlier in the decade and opposes it now, as it's come up in 2017, Ryan said.
"From my perspective, I don't see why this bill would enhance public safety," he said.
The bill removes objective standards surrounding self defense and forces law enforcement authorities to prove what people who used deadly force were thinking when they pulled the trigger, Ryan said. It also creates a presumption that people are automatically immune from prosecution if they act in self defense, he said.
"Now we've just got people running around with guns, and if they feel threatened, they get to shoot people," he said.
Not 'the Wild, Wild West'
Ruud said she doesn't expect the bill to pass this session, rather, she wants Minnesotans to know gun rights are still a priority to lawmakers. She also wants the initiative to get committee hearings so the new crop of freshman legislators know what's in it.
Although Ruud couldn't think of any specific instances of constituents telling her they weren't safe because of existing self defense law, she added that she's heard from those who wish for the elimination of the duty to retreat, inside their home or out.
Asked about the dissent against similar Stand Your Ground Laws, Ruud pointed out that the 2003 law that allowed Minnesotans to carry handguns in public was also met with fears of diminished public safety, which turned out to be overblown.
"I'm aware of the controversy, but I also know that when we passed the (Citizens') Personal Protection Act, everybody said it was going to be the Wild, Wild, West," she said. "In all these years since it passed, we have seen the exact opposite. There hasn't been anyone who has a permit that's really been convicted or used that gun in a crime. So, we think that putting forward good laws, and having people understand what it's all about, is the best way to go."