FAIRBANKS — George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin cast national attention on the so-called “stand your ground” law that is on the books of Florida and a long list of states that soon will include Alaska.
The law permits deadly force in self-defense when a person could otherwise safely leave an altercation. Opponents argue it encourages unnecessary violence, while the law’s supporters say it ensures people won’t have to second-guess themselves in dangerous situations.
The Florida version of the law was not used in Zimmerman’s defense, but it was central to the case and was included in instructions to the jury. One juror told CNN the law played a factor in Zimmerman’s acquittal.
The law has raised concerns among many, including the NAACP organizers who put together a rally against the law earlier this month in Anchorage. Many opponents fear the law will be unfairly biased against minorities, pointing to cases in the Lower 48.
There have been no organized demonstrations against the law in Fairbanks.
The Interior’s Republican lawmakers all voted in favor of the bill and were joined by Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki, who was the state’s sole Democrat to earn an endorsement from the National Rifle Association in the 2012 elections.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, was a “yes” vote and said in an interview this week that he felt the law ensures the law is on the side of the public and not criminals.
“People can be put in dangerous circumstances very rapidly these days; protection is one of the things that you can do,” he said. “Those things happen in a split second.”
The stand your ground law expands on Alaska’s “castle doctrine,” a law Coghill helped pass, which that gives people strong protections to use deadly force in self-defense in their homes or workplaces.
The castle doctrine requires a person leave the place of an altercation “if the person knows that, with complete personal safety and with complete safety as to others being defended, the person can avoid the necessity of using deadly force by leaving the area of the encounter.”
There are exemptions to what’s called the “duty to retreat,” including on owned or rented property, property where the person is a guest or at a person’s workplace.
The new provisions of the stand your ground law do away with the duty to retreat for “any other place where the person has a right to be.”
Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, was the lone Interior lawmaker to vote against the law when it passed the House earlier this year. Guttenberg said he heard no persuasive arguments for passing the law.
“It was talking points about how people should be able to defend yourself. You can defend yourself now. When you feel safe and you can put your gun down and put your baseball bat down,” he said. “If you felt threatened, you can defend yourself. When you no longer feel there’s a threat, you shouldn’t be able to go on the offensive.”
Alaska law currently permits the use of deadly force in self-defense in cases where a person “reasonably believes the use of deadly force is necessary” to avoid death, serious physical injury, kidnapping, sexual assault in first and second degree, sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree and robbery in any degree.
Guttenberg said people are already completely protected by the current law.
“(The stand your ground) law just allows people to go on the offensive,” he said. “It doesn’t do what people think it does, and people will get the idea that they can shoot people wherever they want. I just think we went too far.”
An administrative review of the bill provided to Gov. Sean Parnell before signing the bill noted it “may complicate certain criminal prosecutions,” without detailing what those may entail.
The review, signed by Attorney General Michael Geraghty, says “the language in the bill does not present any legal concerns.”
Gov. Sean Parnell signed the law in late June, along with other firearm-related bills. In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, Parnell said he had not changed his stance on the measure.
Alaska’s stand your ground law goes in to effect Sept. 19.
Coghill did say that he felt the law goes “right up to the edge” on the issue of self defense and said he believes people will still have a heavy burden of proof in court to show they used deadly force in self-defense.
“You still have to show that there was no ill intent, but you have the right to defend yourself, and the criminals don’t have the right,” he said. “I think the law is a good law.”
He said if the law creates an unforeseen circumstances, he would be open to revisiting the law.
“We can’t anticipate every circumstance. We looked at it pretty thoroughly as fundamental right against practical problems, and I’m open to discussion if we got it wrong,” he said. “But I think we got it right.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.