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AUSTIN, Texas - Burglars beware: Lawmakers are working to give Texans the right to use deadly force to protect their homes, cars or businesses - without having to prove they first tried to flee.
Advocates call them "protect your castle" bills, necessary to help law-abiding Texans defend their personal property.
"If someone breaks in, they're there to do you harm," said Republican state Rep. Joe Driver, author of a bill approved this week by a House committee. "Your car and your place of business are just an extension of your castle. This would make it so you can use whatever force necessary to protect yourself."
But opponents characterize such measures as "shoot first" bills that will open the door for mistaken identity accidents and wrongful deaths.
"We already have excellent self-defense laws in Texas," said Marsha McCartney, president of the North Texas Brady Campaign, which seeks to curb gun violence. "They act like they're fixing some big problem, like people defending themselves are going to jail. And that's just not the case."
With some exceptions, state law says Texans must attempt to retreat before firing a gun on an intruder or an aggressor. The castle bills would remove the retreat requirement, as long as the intruder is entering "forcefully and unlawfully," Driver said. That way, he added, any law-abiding person "doesn't have to go down a mental checklist of what they can and can't do" before firing a weapon.
The bills, which would protect Texans from lawsuits if they stand their ground and injure or kill a trespasser, have found widespread support here and appear likely to sail through the Legislature. Similar measures have been approved by 15 other states since Florida passed the original law in 2005.
The laws are meant to apply to a person inside their home, car or office who feels his or her life is in danger - not, for instance, someone who witnesses a criminal breaking into their car in a parking lot.
Susan Gaylord Buxton was 66 when a wanted criminal broke into the Arlington home she shared with her granddaughter in November 2005.
In the middle of the night, wearing nothing but a T-shirt and her underwear, Buxton grabbed her .38 caliber handgun and searched the house for the intruder. When he emerged from a closet and lunged at her, she shot him in the thigh.
But when the police got there, she told the House committee, they treated her like the criminal, reading her rights and confiscating her gun.
"All these years I have tried to be an example to my kids, to my grandkids, to do everything by the law," Buxton said. "And then the law turned around and made me feel like a criminal."
With the broad support and national trend, castle bills have become the main gun legislation in the Legislature this year. Several other bills under consideration would allow employees to carry concealed weapons in their vehicles and leave them locked in their cars during the day.
Gun-control advocates have jumped into the castle bill issue, concerned about accidental shootings and road rage, and trial lawyers have raised concerns about legal immunity for gun-toting homeowners.
"There are enough guns in Texas," said the Rev. Peter Johnson, whose gun buyback program in Dallas reclaimed 3,000 weapons last year. "The perpetuation of violence in our society is a real, real problem. But the solution to violence is not more violence."
The New York Times and the Orlando Sentinel have reported on complications in the aftermath of Florida's "castle doctrine," including the shootings of unarmed trespassers and discarded wrongful-death investigations.
And opponents of the laws say lawsuits filed by intruders or their families are incredibly rare. They say lawmakers are caving to pressure from rifle associations and gun dealers with no evidence to support their arguments.
In the last year, Driver, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, author of another bill, and dozens of their bills' co-authors have accepted campaign contributions from such organizations as the Texas Gun Dealers Association, the Texas Deer Association, the Texas Wildlife Association, the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association.
Wentworth said he came across the issue when he read about Florida's law and thought, "That's silly. Texans have had that right for many decades."
But when he checked the books, he found a provision inserted in state law in 1973 that says Texans have a duty to retreat without using excessive force.
"That doesn't sound very Texan to me," Wentworth said.
Driver said that under the bills, Texans could "still retreat if they want." But McCartney said the "shoot first" laws are so broadly written that they give legal protection to people intent on firing indiscriminately. She fears more accidental shootings and mistaken identity deaths as a result.
"It basically allows you to use deadly force as a first resort," she said. "And there will be mistakes."
James Dark, executive director of the Texas State Rifle Association, said legal immunity won't open the door for unlawful activity. Police can still investigate, and prosecutors could still bring charges if there are questions about a claim of self-defense. The bills would apply only if "they're basically being threatened with death," he said.
SEEING BOTH SIDES
Bills being considered by the Legislature would let Texans use deadly force to defend their homes, cars or businesses without having to prove they tried to flee first. The arguments on both sides:
_The law will help people defend their families and property.
_It will protect them from a lawsuit by an injured intruder or the intruder's family.
_Texas already has sufficient self-defense laws.
_The bills will open the door for wrongful deaths and mistaken identity accidents.
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