HELENA - A pair of Democratic lawmakers unveiled identical bills Thursday that aim to clarify what many Montanans may already believe to be the law: that residents don't have to cede an inch before shooting at someone breaking into their homes.
The two bills, Senate Bill 92 by Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, and House Bill 36 sponsored by Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, enshrine what is known as the "castle doctrine."
"A man's home is his castle," Jent told lawmakers at Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where his bill got its first public airing.
Van Dyk's bill was also the subject of a hearing in the House Judiciary committee.
A contingent of county attorneys, sheriffs, representatives for Montana police chiefs and the Montana Attorney General's Office and Gov. Brian Schweitzer's office spoke at both hearings, with many saying that Montana law already implies that homeowners needn't retreat before firing shots.
No one spoke against the bills.
"I think this is the way it is now," said Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher in testimony before the Senate committee. "You don't have to step back."
Some states specify that homeowners must retreat to a safe place before legally shooting a home invader.
Montana law doesn't specifically say that residents needn't retreat before defending themselves, although many law enforcement officers who spoke Thursday said the law already points to that and that Jent and Van Dyk's bills merely clear up what most prosecutors already practice.
Although the bills are identical, Van Dyke said they weren't planned as such.
Lawmakers in the 2007 Legislature locked horns over another bill that attempted to put the "castle doctrine" clearly into Montana law, along with a host of other gun-related law changes.
That bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Wells, R-Bozeman, who no longer serves in the Legislature, went too far, according to many. Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos came out strongly against that bill.
A bill similar to that is also pending before the 2009 Legislature. That measure, House Bill 228, sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, says, among other things, that employees have a right to carry a gun to their workplaces.
If an employer forbids guns at work, according to Kerns' bill, the employer would be required to provide similar protection to employees that the workers could provide for themselves if they were armed. If not, the employer would be held liable for any injuries an employee suffers as the result of a crime that might have been prevented if the worker could carry a gun.
Asked if such a provision is appropriate in all settings, such as a day care center, Kerns told the Gazette State Bureau, "What if the employee needs the gun to protect the kids?"
Mark Murphy, the chief criminal deputy attorney for Yellowstone County, said the county would again oppose Kerns' bill, just as it opposed a similar effort in 2007.
Murphy testified in favor of both bills presented.