JUNEAU, Alaska — Tonight (tuesday) momentum seems to be building for a change in Alaska's 3-decade-old self-defense law. That after the state's attorney general -- and the governor -- said they both supported House Bill 80.
It's a measure which would alter the "duty to retreat" provision of the state's self-defense law -- a provision which has been in place since 1980.
The move comes not as the result of any innocent Alaskan being wrongly prosecuted for defending him or her self. It comes because some lawmakers say they don't want law-abiding citizens to be encumbered -- worrying about a "duty to retreat" -- if they're in a life-threatening situation. The measure is backed by the National Rifle Association.
Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) -- the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- is not happy about a proposed change. He accuses the new attorney general -- Michael Geraghty -- of abandoning the policies of his predecessor, Attorney General Dan Sullivan.
Just 2 years ago, then attorney Sullivan wrote a letter to the House Judiciary Committee specifically arguing that he was against a similar bill -- because "it would encourage violence.
The letter is dated March 15, 2010 and was sent to Jay Ramras, the chairman of the committee at the time.
There has been much debate about whether a change in Alaska's self-defense law is needed -- especially in the light of the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in Florida in February. Florida has a "Stand-Your-Ground" law, similar to what Alaska's law would be if stripped of the duty to retreat in public places. It's still not clear whether the controversial Florida law played a role in that shooting.
What is clear is this. The current law in Alaska does not require a person to retreat if they are in their own home or in their office. There, it is presumed, that retreating would leave your property or perhaps a fellow family member in danger.
But on the street, it's a different matter. Alaska law states that if you feel endangered by someone on the street, you can use deadly force. But if the option to escape safely exists, you should use it. The provision does not apply if someone else is in danger and you feel the need to protect them.
Senator John Coghill says that's too complicated. He doesn't want law abiding citizens worrying whether they might be prosecuted if they have a legitimate reason to feel endangered.
But Anchorage Prosecutor James Fayette sees things differently. His specialty is putting violent criminals behind bars. He says he can think of no instance in which an innocent person -- defending themselves -- was wrongly jailed in the 32 years the present self-defense law has been in effect. He says the law -- as it stands right now -- is useful in prosecuting gang cases.
Indeed, just last month, Fayette showed the Senate Judiciary Committee dramatic, surveillance camera footage of a shooting in downtown Anchorage. Two people were wounded in that shooting... One a gang member, the other an innocent passerby.
The man responsible for the crime is now in jail. But Fayette says that had there not been a "duty-to-retreat" provision in state law, the escalating violence -- pushing and shoving, followed by the drawing of a gun -- might have complicated the prosecution of the gunman. If Alaska had "no duty to retreat", the suspect might have tried to argue that he was only trying to defend himself.
Senator Coghill doesn't by that argument. He says there are clear provisions in Alaska law regarding gang behavior.
In the meantime, not only is Geraghty backing House Bill 80 -- which would change Alaska's defense law. So is Governor Sean Parnell. In a press release today (tuesday), Parnell said he would sign HB 80 if lawmakers pass it.
That has sparked a rush to move the bill. With just 12 days left in the session, there are indications it could be fast-tracked out of committee -- and brought to a vote.
If that happens -- and if Parnell then signs the measure -- Alaska would become the 23rd state in the nation to have eliminated the "duty to retreat" in public places.