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Opinion - No need to expand state self-defense laws

DETROIT LAKES - It's one of the most frightening scenarios imaginable: While enjoying the sanctity of your own home, intruders break in. When that happens, shouldn't you have every right to defend yourself?

Under current Minnesota laws, you can. That's one of several reasons why a proposed change in laws covering self-defense is unnecessary.

Minnesota statutes already indemnify citizens from criminal charges if they wound or kill an intruder inside their home. However, a proposed change would allow the use of deadly force in a garage, a deck, a porch or an occupied car.

The revision would give citizens more legal leeway to shoot or kill anyone they perceive as a threat. On the street or in any other public place, there would no longer be an obligation to try to avoid trouble before using a gun in self defense. And the proposal would lower the standard for firing from fear of "great'' harm to fear of "substantial'' harm.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, recently introduced the measure, arguing that it's a logical extension of current law. Minnesotans should not "have to be lawyers,'' he says, to determine whether and how they can protect themselves. He contends his bill would give armed law-abiding citizens confidence that they wouldn't be prosecuted for using deadly force.

This is a classic case of proposed legislation in search of a problem. Neither Cornish nor local law enforcement can cite a single case of people wrongly jailed in this state for killing in self defense.

Around the country, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is promoting such extensions of the so-called "Castle Doctrine,'' laws that protect people who use firearms to defend themselves in their homes. NRA leaders believe the laws are needed to prevent crime victims from being prosecuted or jailed. In the last two years, 20 states have enacted laws that allow people to shoot first and ask questions later, if they catch a criminal in their homes.

Nationally and in Minnesota, county attorneys and major police associations rightly oppose that approach. Giving people carte blanche can encourage vigilantes and promote even more gunplay, while weakening police powers. According to a state police official, it's unreasonable to support laws that give citizens more authority to use force than cops.

Extending the right to shoot an intruder in a garage, for example, sets the stage for spilling blood or taking a life over property. But the only rationale for employing force that can kill is protection of life and limb. It is indeed a slippery slope when the law could condone killing someone over the theft of a bicycle.

Another unintended consequence could be giving legal cover to real criminals. The proposed legislation would eliminate the duty to retreat and avoid danger if reasonably possible. Prosecutors say that means crimes committed during bar fights or gang shootouts could become more difficult to prove.

A House subcommittee chairman has promised to give the Cornish proposal a hearing this session. But the deadly force change should not advance beyond that stage. Under current gun laws, Minnesotans already have enough legal protection to defend themselves, at home or anywhere else. -- Minneapolis Star Tribune