BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick is vowing to veto a bill that would create a so-called stand your ground law in Massachusetts.
More than two dozen state lawmakers are backing the bill, which mirrors the law at the heart of the debate over the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Florida by a neighborhood watch captain.
State Sen. Stephen Brewer has sponsored the bill for the past five years. The Barre Democrat said his main goal is to protect individuals who defend themselves in public from criminal and civil penalties.
Massachusetts residents already have the right to defend themselves if they’re attacked inside their homes.
“What I was focusing on when I put my name on the bill was the civil part of it,” Brewer said. “I have no interest in the commonwealth resorting to vigilante justice.”
Patrick said he doesn’t see a need for the bill.
“It won’t get past my desk,” Patrick said Thursday on his monthly radio program on WTKK-FM.
Critics of “stand your ground” laws say they encourage the use of deadly force when it could be avoided.
They point to the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death after an encounter with 28-year-old George Zimmerman in the central Florida town of Sanford. Zimmerman told police he was attacked by Martin, who was not armed, and shot him in self-defense. Zimmerman has not been arrested.
Gun control activist John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said the law in Florida and similar laws in other states encourage a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality.
“Stand your ground is an excuse to kill anyone you don’t like and not be held responsible,” he said. “It is horrific public policy. It is racist based public policy.”
Supporters say there’s another side to the story.
They point to an incident in 2009, when an off-duty security guard fatally shot a psychiatric patient as the patient stabbed a doctor in Boston.
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley concluded that Paul Langone “acted in self-defense and the defense of Dr. Astrid Desrosiers” when he fired at 37-year-old Jay Carciero and that Desrosiers “would undoubtedly have died” if Langone had not intervened.
But state Rep. Daniel Winslow said Brewer’s bill is needed to protect individuals like Langone from a possible wrongful-death civil lawsuit even if no criminal charges are brought.
“If you lawfully used deadly force then you should not be able to be sued for it,” said the Norfolk Republican, one of 27 lawmakers sponsoring the bill. Winslow, a former district court judge, said current Massachusetts law requires an individual to try to retreat, if they do so safely, if they are attacked.
But Conley and Attorney General Martha Coakley say examples like the shooting involving Langone show the state’s existing laws governing self-defense are working.
“I think we have pretty strong laws here in Massachusetts around self-defense,” Coakley said.
Rep. Byron Rushing, another critic of “stand your ground” laws, said the bill’s language is too fuzzy.
“When you are out on the street, it’s very hard to define when someone is in your personal space and what threatening means,” said Rushing, D-Boston.
Brewer said he filed the bill on behalf of the Gun Owners Action League.
Jim Wallace, the group’s executive director, said there’s no real recognition in state law of an individual’s right to defend himself outside their home.
“All we’re looking for is that if you are put into a situation that is untenable, where you have no other option, that you have the right to defend yourself,” he said.
The bill would allow an individual to use deadly force in a public area “if he or she acted in the reasonable belief that an assailant was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon themselves or upon another person.”
The bill also states that “there shall be no duty on a person to retreat from any place that they have a right to be” and “no person who has committed an act of lawful defense … shall be held liable in an action for damages for death or injuries to an assailant.”
The bill is currently before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary but isn’t expected to pass.
“I don’t have any false hope that it will emerge,” Brewer said.