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Specter of the gun

Ah, the Nevada Legislature, where today the question that took center stage was this: Under precisely what circumstances can we kill people?

The scene was the Senate Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers debated two bills related to guns. One, Senate Bill 171, would recognize the concealed weapons permits issued by other states as valid in Nevada and erase Clark County’s “blue card” handgun registration program. (That’s similar to a bill heard this morning in the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.)

But most of the debate was over Senate Bill 175, a omnibus bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson that includes a host of gun-related policy. In addition to duplicating the concealed-weapons and “blue card” provisions of SB 171, the Roberson bill would:

• Specifically define as justifiable homicide the killing of a person in defense of an occupied motor vehicle in cases where an assailant tries to enter to assault the occupants. It would also provide a qualified immunity in civil lawsuits for people who lawfully defend themselves in those circumstances.

• Establishes that the killing of another person is justified if a.) the person doing the killing knew or had reason to believe the victim was entering a property unlawfully or with force, and b.) knew or had reason to believe the victim was committing or attempting to commit a felony and c.) did not provoke the victim.

• Prohibits a person who has been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning or having in his possession a firearm.

• Prohibits a person who is the subject of an order of protection in domestic violence cases from purchasing or otherwise acquiring a firearm.

Roberson was at pains to distinguish his bill — he described it as an extension of the “castle doctrine” to vehicles — from “stand your ground” laws. The castle doctrine holds that a person may defend his home from invasion, while stand your ground says a person does not have to retreat from an armed confrontation in a place where he has a legal right to be, even if escape as an alternative to using deadly force is possible.

And, Roberson said, the bill would benefit the victims of domestic violence. “This bill with regard to domestic violence takes a huge step forward,” Roberson said.

He may have been stung by criticism of his bill against the backdrop of Senate Bill 187, introduced by Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, before she had to leave Carson City for surgery to remove a brain tumor. Smith, recovering in Houston, issued a statement before today’s hearing encouraging the Senate to pass her bill over Roberson’s measure.

“While I appreciate that this [Roberson’s] bill attempts to address some domestic violence issues, I cannot support it in its current form,” Smith said in her statement. “Expanding ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws will make this state a more dangerous place for all Nevadans, particularly women who are so often the victims of violent crimes. I urge the Judiciary Committee to instead hear SB 187, which will give domestic violence survivors the protection they deserve.”

Smith’s bill would require courts to take away the guns of anybody who is subject to an order of protection for domestic violence, and prohibit such a person from acquiring or possessing a firearm while the order is in effect. It would impose the same conditions on people convicted of domestic violence or stalking.

After the hearing, Nevada Democrats hit Roberson with the one-two punch, a statement from party Chairwoman Roberta Lange and the typical iron-fist-in-a-stainless-steel-glove treatment from party spokesman Zach Hudson.

“Michael Roberson’s bill is a dangerous proposal that will make Nevada communities less safe for women and families,” Hudson said. “ It’s a shame that the people who will be hurt by Roberson’s bill don’t have the same clout with the Republican Senate leader that his wealthy campaign donors do. He was willing to ram through a [construction defects] bill lining their pockets last week but won’t lift a finger for the women and families who will be hurt by this bill. Otherwise Roberson would hold a hearing on Senator Debbie Smith’s bill that will protect victims of domestic violence, not this one that enables perpetrators of it.”

Roberson addressed the criticism at the start of the hearing, saying his bill had the votes to pass the Legislature, implying that Smith’s bill did not. (Moreover, his language would impose mandatory restrictions on domestic violence perpetrators that aren’t in current law, so he actually is lifting a finger to help women who are domestic violence victims.) But Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford said during the hearing that if Roberson were to simply bring a bill prohibiting domestic violence perpetrators from owning or acquiring firearms, it would pass.

Ford and some of his fellow Democrats were skeptical of other aspects of Roberson’s bill, however, especially the justifiable homicide provisions. Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, asked what would happen if his mother mistakenly got into the wrong car, and was shot by a fearful motorist. While Roberson and committee Chairman Greg Brower maintained that situation would not be a justifiable killing, Ford argued that the language of the bill (specifically, “knew or had reason to believe” a person was entering the car with malevolent intent) were subjective enough to allow a person to argue later that the slaying was justified, at least legally speaking.

Ford, who like Brower is an attorney, noted that if two lawyers couldn’t agree on the meaning of the language, interpretation in the courts could be a problem.

“The fact that we’re disagreeing does not mean that we have a good-faith debate,” Brower said.

“Good faith?” Ford shot back. “I hope you’re not saying otherwise.” But Brower simply moved on with the hearing, which was truncated because lawmakers on the panel and testifying before it had other appointments. Brower said the bill would not be processed this week, although Republicans have moved swiftly on other big policy bills this session.

Other senators questioned the need for the bill’s language in the first place. Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, wondered if it was necessary in light of NRS 200.120, which already broadly defines justifiable homicide as “…the killing of a human being in necessary self-defense, or in defense of habitation, property or person, against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony, or against any person or persons who manifestly intend and endeavor, in a violent, riotous, tumultuous or surreptitious manner, to enter the habitation of another for the purpose of assaulting or offering personal violence to any person dwelling or being therein.”

But the inclusion of the justifiable homicide language into the bill may also be a political strategy on Roberson’s part, aimed at getting the support of some Republicans skeptical of any restrictions on firearms ownership. Some of them may dislike the provisions that would restrict domestic violence perpetrators from owning or possessing guns, but might be more inclined to accept those restrictions if they were mated with the other pieces of the bill.

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