Once again, a measure expanding the right to deadly self defense and eliminating a threatened person’s “duty to retreat” before defending himself has passed the Pennsylvania House by an overwhelming margin. The chamber approved the so-called “Castle Doctrine” bill on a 164-37 vote, after a lengthy and at times bizarre debate.
Democrats spent much of their floor time questioning Republican sponsor Scott Perry on hypothetical situations the bill would and wouldn’t cover. Noting the private property people can protect with deadly force includes motorized vehicles, Democrat Mike Gerber asked whether that would extend to motorcycles. “It’s a vehicle that moves people, it’s got a motor,” he reasoned. After Perry said Gerber’s assumption was correct, the Democrat continued, “Now it says, whether or not motorized. Would it also apply to a bicycle?”
“It does,” Perry replied. “However, solely relying on the definition isn’t enough, because the law also requires forcible entry. And it’s hard to establish how one forcibly enters a bicycle.”
Democrat Steve Santarsiero grilled Perry on whether people could shoot anyone who enters their home, asking, “the person against whom the force is going to be used has to both unlawfully and forcefully enter into a dwelling or residence, is that correct?” Yes, said Perry. “We’re trying to protect the individual who might be coming over to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg or something like that from being randomly shot by his or her neighbor, obviously.”
The hypotheticals reached their peak with this question from Democrat Margo Davidson: “If the gentleman from Butler County [Daryl Metcalfe] stood yelling, knowing that he’s a gun-toter, and I felt threatened, would I be protected under court law if I blew his brains out?” Speaker Sam Smith immediately chastised Davidson and struck her comment from the House record.
This incarnation of House Bill 40 is different from last year’s in a few key ways. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association opposed the vetoed measure last year, calling it a “defense attorney’s dream.” The group’s president, Ed Marsico, was worried the bill would make it easier for murder suspects to gain acquittals through self-defense arguments. The PDAA worked alongside Republican leaders to add new language to the new bill: now defendants need to legally own the guns they use to protect themselves, and need to visually spot a weapon on the aggressor before shooting. “The amendments make the bill much better – a little bit tighter – in that respect,” said Marsico. “We’re still concerned. I’m sure we’ll still see claims that individuals were acting in self-defense, claiming they did not have a duty to retreat, once this bill passes. But we hope to have limited them as much as possible.”
While House Bill 40 is different from last year’s legislation, it’s identical to the bill the Senate passed earlier this year. The House could have sent legislation to Governor Corbett’s desk by approving Senate Bill 273. Now, at least one more vote will need to take place. Chalk that up to turf battles. “It’s known across Pennsylvania as House Bill 40. It’s not known as some Senate bill,” said Perry, pointing to last year’s legislative battle, and later referring to the twin measure as “some Senate bill that somebody put their name on.” (That “somebody” is Republican Richard Alloway.) “With all due respect to the Senate and to Senator Alloway, we appreciate the support but there’s a lot of people that have a lot of vested interest and time over years,” said Perry.