Texas may OK shooting first in self-defense

Times Staff Writer

In a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to personal safety, state lawmakers are weighing a bill that would give Texans the right to use deadly force as a first resort when they feel their safety is threatened.

The measure, which is in committee, is an early hit at the statehouse: Twenty-seven of 31 state senators have signed on as co-sponsors. In the House, 100 of 150 members support the bill.

“You’ve got to assume a criminal’s not there to buy Girl Scout cookies; you could be harmed,” said State Rep. Joe Driver, one of two original sponsors. “You should be able to meet force with force without getting in trouble.”


The bill allows a person to claim self-defense if he or she feels threatened at home, in a car or place of business. A person would be shielded from criminal or civil liability in those instances.

The measure -- known as the “stand your ground” bill by proponents and the “shoot thy neighbor” bill by critics -- is derived from the common-law theory that a man’s home is his castle and that he has a right to defend it with deadly force, without first attempting to retreat.

The Texas proposal and others like it take the so-called castle doctrine out of the home and into public areas. With the support of the National Rifle Assn., the idea is rapidly spreading across the country: 15 states have adopted versions of the law since 2005, with six more considering it this year.

Gun-control advocates say such statutes are unnecessary because in true self-defense cases, the law is already on the victim’s side. Changing it opens the door to indiscriminate killing by people who later claim they feared for their lives, said Zach Ragbourn, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“You won’t be thrown in jail for legitimate self-defense,” he said. “Monkeying with the law can only help people who would have otherwise been punished.”

Supporters say the law is needed in states such as Texas that require people who feel endangered when outside their home to initially retreat.


“If you feel the best way to defend yourself is to fight back, then the criminal justice system should be on your side and not the side of your attacker,” said Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist.

He argues that in the split second that could mean life or death, a person shouldn’t have to worry about being prosecuted for his actions. The measure also “protects people from lawsuits filed by criminals and their families. Gun owners find that reprehensible,” Cox said.

The proposed law is probably not necessary in Texas, which already has broad deadly force laws, said Jerry Dowling, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

“I cannot imagine from a pure Texas cultural standpoint, any grand jury here would indict someone because he or she failed to retreat when they blasted someone trying to harm them in some way,” Dowling said. “It’s legislation in search of a problem. I’m not sure of its utility.”

Because the measure automatically presumes a person feared for his life, some worry it will complicate or make prosecution impossible, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Assn.

“A concern is that you may not be able to rebut the presumption of innocence in court,” he said. “If someone said ‘I was acting in self defense’ and met the test of the statute, the trial could be over before a jury objectively views the evidence.... The problem in preventing a review of homicide is that everyone is going to claim self-defense.”


Florida legislators, who in 2005 were the first in the nation to enact a “stand your ground” statute, are already rethinking the law. The case driving a possible change involves 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins, who was killed by a stray bullet last summer as she played in her yard. The two men charged in her death could invoke the “stand your ground” law; each could say he was acting in self-defense during a shootout in the girl’s neighborhood.

Legislation introduced in Florida last month would remove criminal and civil immunity if an innocent bystander, particularly a child, is injured, and it would define “threat” as an overt act.

“There are dozens of cases around the country where people say they were acting in self-defense, where it would not even have crossed their lawyers’ minds two years ago to claim that,” said the Brady Campaign’s Ragbourn. “It’s a badly written law that’s letting people get away with murder.”