Gov. Tom Corbett has signed into law a bill expanding Pennsylvania residents' rights to use deadly force to defend themselves and others in public places.
The "Castle Doctrine" bill, approved eight days ago by the state legislature, eliminates the requirement that people must first try to get away from perceived attackers, except when confronted inside their homes, vehicles or businesses.
The new law, which protects people who use legal, registered guns in self-defense or to defend others, goes into effect in 60 days.
The law "expands and further defines an individual's right to use deadly force inside or outside of his or her dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle. It eliminates an individual's duty to retreat before using deadly force if the person is in a place the person has a right to be and believes that deadly force is necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or rape," the law states. It also limits certain civil liability in some cases for people who act within the guidelines.
The bill was supported by the National Rifle Association. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association initially opposed the bill, but relented after the legislation was amended to make it tougher to use as a defense against criminal charges.
"I am pleased to see this self-defense bill signed into law by the governor," said state Sen. David G. Argall, R-29. "Citizens should not need to worry about using force to prevent an intruder from illegally entering their home, especially when it jeopardizes families."
Local law enforcement officials had mixed feelings about the new law, which Coaldale Police Chief Tim Delaney described as a double-edged sword.
"That would make a criminal think twice, wouldn't it?" he said. But Delaney also cited a case in which a Texas homeowner shot to death a man who came onto his property to repossess a vehicle.
"If you take someone's life, you still have to go through an investigation," he said. "You have a second to decide what to do. Investigators will have months to study that action. Nothing is simple."
Lansford Police Chief John Turcmanovich said, "I'm all for it. It's about time the American taxpaying citizen got some rights back to defend themselves and their properties. The judicial pendulum has swing back toward the honest, law-abiding, taxpaying citizen."
Carbon County Sheriff Dwight Nothstein also sees the pros and cons.
"It's a tough call. Everybody should be able to protect themselves. I think it's a good piece of legislation for protection. But who knows who's going to fly off the handle – that remains to be seen. There are things in place to keep that from happening, but that doesn't mean it's going to stop it."
Efforts to reach Tamaqua Police Chief Dave Mattson and Mahoning Township Police Chief Kenneth Barnes were unsuccessful early Wednesday.
Palmerton Police Chief Randy Smith and Jim Thorpe Police Chief Joseph Schatz declined to comment on the law.
Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias has said he's concerned the law will escalate gun violence, with people using deadly force even if they could retreat from a confrontation.
Schuylkill County District Attorney James Goodman was also ambivalent.
"People have the right to protect themselves. I believe the current law was adequate to do that. There were provisions added by the District Attorneys Association (to prevent) criminals to use (the law) as a defense in criminal homicide cases – that was our concern," he said.
The state Senate on June 20 passed the legislation, House Bill 40, by a 45-5 vote. The bill states that the use of deadly force is justified if "the actor knows or has reason to believe that the unlawful and forceful entry or act is occurring or has occurred; the person against whom the force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence or vehicle, such as an owner or lessee; the person sought to be removed is a child or grandchild or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of the person against whom the protective force is used; the actor is engaged in a criminal activity or is using the dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle to further a criminal activity; or the person against whom the force is used is a peace officer acting in the performance of his official duties and the actor using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a peace officer."