http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbu ... 55930.html 'Stand your ground' proposal triggers gun-law debate By David Hunt TRIBUNE-REVIEW Tuesday, May 30, 2006 When a Somerset County man opened fire on two intruders at his apartment last month, killing one, he insisted he was protecting himself. Whether Matthew Eperjesi was justified remains a question for the courts at a time of nationwide debate over extending legal protection for gun owners to shoot intruders in their homes and even people threatening them on the streets. Gun rights advocates are applauding so-called "stand your ground" laws that have left anti-violence groups nervous. This year, nine states have enacted such laws, following Florida, which led the way with legislation passed in 2005. Pennsylvania is among more than a dozen other states considering joining the trend. "People are more fearful today for their well-being than they ever have been," said state Rep. Steven W. Cappelli, R-Williamsport, who spearheaded a bill under review by the House Judiciary Committee. "I believe we should follow the lead of other states and strengthen the rights of law-abiding citizens." Cappelli's bill would allow Pennsylvanians to shoot before shooting becomes a last resort. Under current law, residents can protect themselves with firearms if placed in danger of death or serious injury, but the proposed law would relax what's commonly called a "duty to retreat." In other words, that an intruder is breaking and entering would be proof enough that he means harm. Perhaps more controversial, though, shooters also would be exempt from facing criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits if they shoot and kill someone who is attacking them outside of the home. "We believe it is fundamental to the American way of life and everybody's right to protection," said Ashley Varner, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. Varner said the NRA has made the "stand your ground" changes a top legislative priority. Opponents are calling the laws "shoot first" legislation. Some even call the laws "a license to murder." "There are a lot of untrained people out there with guns and a lot of innocent bystanders that can get clipped," said Chad Ramsey, Pennsylvania field director for the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Cappelli said great care has been taken that his bill would not backfire if signed into law. Lethal force would not be justified against law enforcement, parents or other guardians removing a child or other residents from a home or vehicle. Police and prosecutors would make the final determination on whether a shooting was criminal. "Shoot first and ask questions later? I'd say this is not the case," Cappelli said. "This isn't an 'OK Corral'-type bill. This is a bill that we think more clearly defines self-defense and the use of self-defense." Cappelli said he'd like to have hearings on the bill and get it to a full House vote soon. State Rep. John Pallone, D-New Kensington, a member of the judiciary committee, said he supports the idea of giving homeowners more freedom to protect themselves, but he thinks the bill may be a tough sell statewide, especially in urban areas with gun problems. "I imagine that bill will be very seriously debated," he said. "At opposite ends of the state, we have very different views on how guns should be treated." "One concern I've heard expressed by law enforcement, if you end up in a situation where you have shootings with gangs, it could make those shootings justifiable," said Somerset County District Attorney Jerry Spangler. Spangler, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said he expects Cappelli's bill will trigger discussion at the group's next meeting. John Lee, president of the Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association, said he supports Cappelli's bill. "We feel it will be very good, pro-gun, and also it will assist in reducing the crime situation if handled properly," he said. According to the political issues monitoring group Stateline.org, stand your ground laws "have been rejected in a handful of states, including gun-friendly Wyoming and Virginia." With the oldest of the laws, Florida's, being adopted just last year, Brady Campaign spokesman Zach Ragbourn said his group has not been able to conduct any serious studies. From reading news clippings, he said it appears there have been at least two drug- or gang-related Florida shootings that were deemed justifiable. To say the Brady Campaign doesn't advocate self-defense would be wrong, Ragbourn said. Often, the new laws are labeled with the term "castle doctrine," a concept dating back to common law, meaning that a man's home is his castle, where he holds the right to live in peace. "An actual, literal, castle doctrine, we have no problem with," Ragbourn said, adding that he thinks Cappelli's bill strays so far from the basic concept that it could promote chaos. "There's nobody languishing in prison for defending their family against a burglar," Ragbourn said. "The system works just fine as it is. There's no need to monkey with it, and that's exactly what this does." "Each of these laws are written so that you cannot arbitrarily shoot someone," said the NRA's Varner. "We are not talking about criminals hashing things out. We are talking about a father protecting his kids if they are car-jacked on the way to the fair." Whether the proposed law would have changed the Eperjesi case is a matter of debate. Lawyers on both sides are scheduled to continue sorting out the facts during a June 5 preliminary hearing. Eperjesi, 27, of Wills, Somerset Township, is charged with shooting and killing Perry "P.J." Zimmerman, 33, of Central City, and wounding Terry Mostoller, 32, of Berlin, as they allegedly stormed his home. A third man who did not enter, Keith Custer, 32, told police the three were searching for a party in the neighborhood to which they had been invited. Eperjesi was granted bond after Spangler said the incident does not appear to support the element of malice required for a murder conviction. State police at Somerset said the incident began about 2:15 a.m. April 8, when the three men were on the street outside Eperjesi's second-floor apartment, making noise with their vehicles and spinning tires. Eperjesi told the men to stop, but the three men approached his apartment, police said. Eperjesi told police he closed the door and held a shotgun, but two men threatened him and broke open the door. Eperjesi warned the men that he would shoot if they entered, he told police. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said the bill would make prosecutors' jobs easier in determining whether charges should be filed after a shooting, but he still has reservations. Peck is the lead prosecutor in a county of 367,635 where 36,335 people have concealed firearm permits. "Any time you use deadly force, you have to realize the enormity of the consequences. When a person kills a person, they're acting as a police officer, the judge and the jury," Peck said. "I hope that people don't think this law should cause them to use any less restraint or any less good judgment. It's a very difficult issue. That's why I question the need for this change."