JUNEAU, Alaska—The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Friday about whether Alaska's self-defense laws should be changed. After listening to witnesses for 90 minutes -- some of them ordinary citizens, and one a fellow lawmaker -- the members seemed to agree that it was a solution in search of a problem.
The issue put before the committee was this:
The National Rifle Association thinks that's an unreasonable requirement for a person in a life-threatening situation. The organization -- and many gun owners -- contend that if you're threatened, you shouldn't have to be second-guessing about whether a court of law might later say, "Hey, you could have gotten away from that situation without resorting to deadly force."
One gun-owner -- who called in on the phone from Anchorage -- testified that he'd read a newspaper story about a retired policeman in Iowa who used deadly force in a street confrontation. The man said that the officer had spent 112 days in jail before finally being acquitted of in court.
But that witnesses did not mention any case in which Alaska law-enforcement had wrongly jailed a law-abiding citizen who had defended himself using deadly force.
There was also testimony about an infamous 2003 case in Big Lake in which a pastor shot and killed 2 men who had broken into an unoccupied food bank on his property. One of the crooks was shot in the back as he fled. The pastor was charged with manslaughter, and later acquitted.
But Senator Hollis French -- the chairman of the committee -- said that that case would have gone to trial even if there was not "retreat" requirement in Alaska law. The pastor's life was not at risk because the building broken into was unoccupied.
Perhaps the most dramatic testimony of the day came from an Alaska prosecutor. James Fayette works as a prosecutor and makes his living putting violent felons behind bars. He made it clear that he was testifying here as a private citizen who was visiting Juneau at his own expense.
Fayette brought with him surveillance videos of several shootings. In one of those shootings, gang members can clearly be seen on the streets of downtown Anchorage egging each other on. The verbal confrontation quickly escalates into a shouting match -- and then into pushing and shouting. Finally a gun is drawn, and one of the gang members empties the chamber of all five bullets.
The gang member he is firing at falls wounded to the ground. One of the bullets strikes and wounds a young woman blocks away. It happened in the summer of 2010, and the gunman was arrested, prosecuted and jailed.
But Fayette says convicting such a gang member -- if Alaska eliminated its requirement to "retreat" in a street confrontation -- would be immensely more complicated.
He said that if the law did not require a retreat, the gang member could have argued that he was within his rights to fire on the other gang-member as the confrontation escalated. The chances of putting him behind bars might have diminished.
In the end, the senate seemed to agree with that prosecutor. House Bill 80 -- sponsored by Representative Mark Neuman of Wasilla -- remains in committee, with no date on if or when it will move.
For now the self-defense law in Alaska -- which has survived in its present form since 1980 -- remains the law of the state, with no prospect of imminent change.