Standing their ground

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  April 2, 2012

Within a few years, states across the country passed comparable bills — many of them following the ALEC template to the letter. In 2007, Massachusetts State Senator Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat and then a member of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, put forth the commonwealth's first such bill. The measure went nowhere: it had just three co-sponsors and flamed out after an inconsequential hearing by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Brewer persisted, though, and filed the bill for a second time during the 2009-2010 session, only to watch it die in committee again.

In 2009, however, an incident at a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatric facility near North Station gave Brewer and other legislators the narrative they needed to sell the bill. That October, private security officer Paul Langone — who did not work for MGH, and was off-duty — shot and killed a patient who was stabbing a doctor. Langone was branded a hero, though it took five months for the Suffolk County district attorney to clear him of any wrongdoing.

Brewer cites Langone as an inspiration for filing his "common defense" act a third time — even though Langone never spent a day in jail, and was named Bostonian of the Year by the Boston Globe. That sentiment is shared by a number of Beacon Hill legislators, many of whom express concerns that someone in Langone's position could, under current law, still face litigation from the victim's family. "I'm not sure if [Langone] was actually sued in civil court," says Republican state representative Dan Winslow of Norfolk, one of 27 current "common defense" act co-sponsors. (Langone was not sued in civil court.) "But the fact that he had to worry about it concerns me."

THE WILD WEST

In the past few weeks, the Trayvon Martin case has been front and center in the nonstop news cycle. In Massachusetts, hundreds of outraged supporters rallied in Harvard Square last week, and more citizens continue to bring the protest to churches and college campuses. Meanwhile, at the State House, lawmakers await an April 27 vote by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary to decide if the "act relative to the common defense" will advance to the legislature.

"I believe it is absolutely disingenuous for anyone to compare this law to the Martin case in Florida," says Republican state representative Marc Lombardo of Billerica, a co-sponsor of the bill. In addition to arguing that Zimmerman should not be protected by "stand your ground," Lombardo and his colleagues stress that Massachusetts gun laws are stricter than those elsewhere. "I have no intention of returning to the Wild West," adds Brewer.

Line by line, S661 does bear marked similarity to the Florida statute. Furthermore, parts of Brewer's act mirror the ALEC model closely — right down to provisions that shooters can keep their gun permit following a killing. However, researchers at the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, which follows these laws closely, say that Brewer's bill differs from the Florida law in at least one significant way — it would not create a presumption of innocence for someone like Zimmerman. Instead, the circumstances would be evaluated by police and the courts.

In any case, there's suddenly a heap of attention on Brewer's bill. The state senator is downplaying it; he says his act won't likely make it out of committee. Still, there's nearly 10 times as much legislative support behind "common defense" than in years past.

"I do think this is relevant to what happened in Florida," says Chang-Díaz, the Jamaica Plain Democrat. "The best path for this bill is for it to not get any more traction than it already has, but if it does go through, it's a real risk."

Follow Chris Faraone on Twitter @fara1.

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