Ohio Republican lawmakers fast track bill eliminating duty to retreat

Jessie Balmert
Cincinnati Enquirer
Ohio lawmakers are poised to pass legislation that would eliminate the duty to retreat before using deadly force.

COLUMBUS – Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature is fast-tracking a bill that will eliminate the requirement to retreat before shooting. 

Senate Bill 383 would eliminate the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, defense of another person or defense of certain property. The change would expand the places someone could fire a gun from his home and vehicle to anywhere he has a legal right to be. 

The bill passed committee with a party-line vote Wednesday, setting up a full Senate vote next week.  

Prosecutors would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooter did not act in self-defense to convict that person. 

At least 27 other states have eliminated the duty to retreat before firing in self-defense. These laws are sometimes called "stand your ground" or "shoot first" by opponents.  

For gun owners, the change is a matter of safety and fairness.

"I have this right in my home. I have this right in my vehicle. But for some reason, Ohio removes this right in all other locations," Dean Rieck, executive director of Buckeye Firearms Association, told lawmakers. 

Law-abiding gun owners are taught to avoid and escape dangerous situation before defending themselves, but many fear what would happen in the court of law or public opinion if they had to shoot, said Judi Phelps, owner of On Guard Defense in southeastern Ohio.

"There is no time or opportunity to escape when evil is bearing down on us," Phelps told lawmakers. 

Those who opposed the bill say eliminating the duty to retreat would lead to more violence. A 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research of 21 states found these self-defense laws do not deter crime. In fact, homicides increased by 8%. 

House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, said the bill was disrespectful to the people of Dayton, where a 24-year-old shooter killed nine people and injured 17 others in August 2019. They wanted "common sense" gun safety legislation, she said.

 "It is deadly," Sykes said of the proposal. "It makes, especially Black and brown communities unsafe and feel unsafe."

A U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigation into whether "stand your ground" laws had an "unacceptable racial bias" in how they are applied was inconclusive, largely because data aren't collected uniformly or consistently. 

"What we do know, and what we cannot ignore, is that the same racial biases that have permeated our criminal justice system cannot be separated from this issue," the February 2020 review found. 

Sykes said prioritizing this gun proposal over legislation to declare racism a public health crisis or addressing COVID-19 concerns is "horribly disrepectful and offensive." 

A review of Florida's "stand your ground" law found “abrupt and sustained increases in homicides" – both unlawful and justified – after the change took effect. according to the 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Internal Medicine.

"These findings provide evidence that lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it," according to the study.

Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-North Avondale, contended that the change isn't needed. Few, if any, Ohioans are being prosecuted for not fleeing before shooting in self-defense. 

A companion bill, House Bill 796, is being reviewed in the Ohio House of Representatives. 

Meanwhile, Ohio's lawmakers have shown little interest in passing changes that would restrict access to firearms, including a proposal pushed by Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, after the Dayton shooting. 

Instead, legislators have passed Senate Bill 360 to ban the closure of gun stores during a pandemic and Senate Bill 317 to allow teachers to carry firearms at school without police officer training. School boards would set how much training is required. Both bills need a vote in the House before heading to DeWine for his signature.