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Virginia’s Castle Doctrine gun law ‘can’t live, can’t die’

By   /   January 15, 2013  /   News  /   No Comments

By Carten Cordell │ Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA— While it’s unclear whether the so-called Castle Doctrine has nine lives, the controversial bill has died and risen in the Virginia General Assembly more times than Lazarus has walked the Earth.

TAKING AIM: A bill promoting Castle Doctrine has been filed in the Virginia General Assembly for the fourth-straight year despite previous defeats.

The proposal, which allows for the use of deadly force when a dwelling is invaded and frees the occupant from criminal and civil charges, has come before the General Assembly every year since 2010. Each time a Castle Doctrine bill came to a vote, it failed.

Delegate Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Carroll, has taken up the gauntlet this year with HB 1415, which reads almost verbatim like Highland Republican Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell’s HB 48 from 2012.

Bell’s bill came close to becoming law last year, when it cleared the House and Senate at different points. But lawmakers couldn’t reconcile the flurry of amendments both houses tacked on. Ultimately, HB 48 died in committee, and Bell pledged not to take it up in 2013.

Debate on the subject has been further complicated by Florida’s Trayvon Martin case and Connecticut’s  Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, which do not relate to Castle Doctrine’s central tenet of home protection, but nevertheless have entangled the bill in the gun-rights debate.

“It’s sort of at a spot where it can’t live and it can’t die,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.

For Castle Doctrine to pass, “I think it would run counter to the trend that seems to be out there right now,” she said.

“People are a little bit hesitant about expanding the right to use gun force in some ways, but on the other end, they are interested in encouraging people to protect themselves and be vigilant. There is a lot of conflicting emotion and movement right now in the way people feel about guns right now.”

Another issue that has dogged Castle Doctrine legislation in Virginia is what effect any bill would have on common-law interpretation.

Common law, or case law, is a series of precedents based on interpretations of the law made from legal cases. The defense of one’s property and safety long has been recognized by common law, but the interpretation has been left to a judge’s discretion. The introduction of a new law could wipe out centuries of precedent and open to new interpretation issues of personal protection.

Such worries lead the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a grassroots gun-rights group based in Newington, to abandon its support of Castle Doctrine. VCDL president Philip Van Cleave said the bills are generally more trouble than they are worth.

“We had looked at putting in a bill that would have completely codified all of the common law, but we had an awful lot of commonwealth attorneys, defense attorneys and others saying there is too much risk involved putting in a new law,” he said. “It would be interpreted narrowly, where the common law is interpreted much more broadly. It would give judges a chance to reinterpret something that had been settled pretty much.”

But it’s the civil law argument that has been cited in defense of many Castle Doctrine bills — the protection of victims being sued by intruders for injuries or damages. Van Cleave said in researching the issue, he and the VCDL could not find enough precedent for civil lawsuits to justify the Castle Doctrine bills proposed.

“We just haven’t seen any evidence of that happening,” he said. “You can be sued for anything in America, but the attorneys pretty much do this stuff on contingency. If they win, they get paid. If they lose, they don’t.  There aren’t these junk lawsuits against people that have defended themselves because it is a loser.”

It remains to be seen if 2013 breaks the streak, or if Castle Doctrine will die again only to rise in a future general assembly. Van Cleave said the intent of the bill is right, but, at this moment, there isn’t enough evidence for him to support it.

“People can disagree,” he said. “(Crockett-Stark) firmly believes in this. She was doing it for all the right reasons. Maybe at the end of the day, she is right and we’re wrong. That’s what makes it so tough, it’s just not cut and dry. The whole subject of this, I get a migraine every time it comes up.”

HB 1415 was referred to House subcommittee on criminal law on last Thursday, but was continued to another date. The bill is not on the subcommittee’s agenda for its Wednesday meeting. Calls to Crockett-Stark for comment were not returned.

Contact Carten Cordell at [email protected]





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Carten formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.