One of the most controversial bills moving through the Ohio Statehouse is the so-called “Stand Your Ground” bill. Pro-gun groups support the legislation, which removes the requirement to try and retreat before taking lethal action.
But there’s a separate battle happening within the bill.
For most crimes committed in Ohio, the court system is set up so that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. But that’s not the case when it comes to self-defense. Ohio is the only state in the country that puts the burden of proof on the defendant to prove they’re not guilty.
State public defender Tim Young says this means the deck is stacked against anyone trying to make a case for self-defense.
“There are lawful killings, that’s a horrible way to think about it, but there are lawful killings,” Young says. “Somebody comes at you with a knife, you have a right, an absolute right both under the law and by I think natural selection, if you will, to defend yourself. It’s their burden to proof that you didn’t do it lawfully.”
But the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association is opposed to “Stand Your Ground.” Executive director Louis Tobin says all this will do is make it harder to convict criminals.
“What it really does is make it more difficult to convict that group of people and to get them off the streets,” Tobin says. “So that’s where the risk to public safety comes in. I’ll just add to that, prosecutors, they do what they do because they want to promote public safety, they want to get to the truth of the matter, and they want to secure justice for victims prosecuting somebody who’s justifiably using self-defense doesn’t promote any of those goals.”
This issue is rolled into the larger “Stand Your Ground” bill, HB 228, which eliminates the duty to retreat, making it easier to use lethal force in self-defense. (It also blocks local governments from passing their own gun control laws, such as Columbus and Cincinnati have recently done.)
Opponents fear this will lead to more violence and less accountability.
Young and Tobin are not often on the same side of an issue, but they agree on that point—both don’t like “Stand Your Ground.”
“My office would normally oppose a ‘Stand Your Ground’ bill like this because it will probably result in more death, it will probably result in more violent confrontation in Ohio,” Young says. “But it’s going to pass, so we might as well, and we should get Ohio in the right way with the self-defense portion.”
Pro-gun groups like the Buckeye Firearms Association have said this expands their ability to protect themselves. But as for the self-defense portion of the bill, Young has a theory about why the prosecutors don’t like it.
“They just don’t want to prove this element because it makes their job a little harder,” Young says.
Tobin admits it’s difficult to argue when 49 states already do it this way.
“Ohio just does it better, our law is based on 200 years of common law rather than the winds of the time, which are to place the burden on the prosecution,” Tobin says. “And I think until proponents can point to some injustices that are happening under current law there’s no reason to change it.”
Young says this proposal before lawmakers is a better reflection of how the criminal justice system has been set up since the beginning.
“The right that our founders protected, through war, through succession, from the British reign was about freedom, was about controlling your own destiny without government interference and control,” Young says. “That’s what self-defense is about—the ability to defend yourself—and if the government said you didn’t do it right it should be the government’s burden to prove you didn’t do it right.”
Tobin counters that proponents of this overhaul to self-defense litigation have built up a stigma around a law that’s made sense for Ohio for 200 years.
“It’s evidence that’s peculiar to the accused,” Tobin says. “So only the accused knows what was going on in their mind at a given moment, so the law has required them to say, ‘This is what was going on, this is why my actions were justified.’”
The bill passed out of an Ohio House committee, and given the track record of other gun bills in the House, it’s likely this piece of legislation could be taken up soon.
Gov. John Kasich has said he doesn’t like the bill and won’t sign it. But Senate majority leader Larry Obhof said they have a veto-proof majority if Kasich rejects it.