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Standing their ground

Associated Press • Aug 4, 2013 at 6:00 AM

A group of black lawmakers in Ohio has started circulating petitions to help keep a stand-your-ground proposal from being passed in the state.

The bill would allow people to use force to defend themselves without having a duty to retreat first.

The legislation goes beyond Ohio's current castle doctrine law, which gives people the right to defend themselves with force in their homes, vehicles or vehicles of immediate family members.

Debate over such measures has increased since the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. Martin's family say Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, racially profiled Martin as a potential criminal and wrongly followed him. Zimmerman says Martin attacked him.

At least 21 states have laws similar to the one in Florida, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws generally eliminate a person's duty to retreat in the face of a serious physical threat.

Civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, have said they would push for repeal of the laws. The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus wants to keep the idea from moving forward in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

State Rep. Terry Johnson, a McDermott Republican, introduced the bill in June. It's had one House hearing. More than a dozen lawmakers back the proposal, which also would ease restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.

Johnson told an Ohio House committee in June that lawful gun owners shouldn't have to turn their backs on an assailant to try to flee if they are in a place where they have a right to be.

"If I was out with my family and we were attacked, I would want to be able to defend them and exercise my constitutional right to do so," Johnson said in written testimony. He noted that people would still need to prove in court that they were acting in self-defense.

Rep. Alicia Reece, president of the black caucus, said the group is trying to draw attention to the bill while state lawmakers are on summer break. They want constituents to tell the governor and legislative leaders that the measure isn't wanted.

"At a time like this, why would we be trying to bring something similar and the state of Ohio?" said Reece, a Cincinnati Democrat.

Johnson said he sees his bill as being a benefit to all, and he hopes he can find common ground with the black caucus on other parts of the bill.

Self-defense related bills failed in at least three states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And several proposals that would have amended circumstances for allowable use of force also didn't advance in state legislatures last year.

Reece said at least 1,000 people signed a petition opposing the bill during a Cincinnati rally after the Zimmerman verdict. She said Ohio already has sufficient self-defense laws.

"We are not against anyone being able to defend themselves," she added. "What we have concerns with is something that could be put in the law that could potentially have someone out looking for trouble, pursing a law-abiding citizen that at the end of the day becomes a tragedy."

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