‘Castle Doctrine’ Rifling Through Virginia State Legal System

If it seems like Guns.com has been covering a lot of ‘Castle Doctrine’ stories lately, it’s because we have.  Though it should be noted that this is not an arbitrary decision by our editors, rather it’s a reaction to the times.  That is, increasingly, states are expanding (or contemplating the expansion of) self-defense rights for law-abiding gun owners.  

The latest example of this growing trend is in Virginia where lawmakers have pushed nearly identical ‘Caste Doctrine’ bills through the state House and state Senate. 

Last week, Virginia’s House of Delegates passed H.B. 48 by a margin of 75-22.  H.B. 48 “encodes a version of the “castle doctrine,” allowing the use of physical force, including deadly force, by a person in his dwelling against an intruder in the dwelling who has committed an overt act against him or another person who is lawfully in the dwelling.”

And on Feb. 2, Senate Bill 4 (Castle Doctrine; self-defense and defense of others) was read for the third time on the State Senate floor and passed by a 23-17 vote.  Senate Bill 4 reads much like H.B. 48 except it includes a crucial phrase absent in H.B. 48, “allowing the use of physical force, including deadly force, by a person in his dwelling against an intruder… without civil liability.” 

H.B. 48 did not have the crucial tagline at the end, “without civil liability.” 

Instead, the State House incorporated it in a whole new bill, H.B. 14, which “Provides civil immunity for an occupant of a dwelling who uses any degree of physical force while engaged in the defense of his dwelling when (i) the other person has unlawfully entered the dwelling and committed an overt act toward the occupant or another person in the dwelling and (ii) the occupant reasonably believes that he or another person in the dwelling is in imminent danger of bodily injury.”

H.B. 14 also passed by a vote of 70-28. 

So, basically both the state House and Senate agree that one’s home is his/her castle and that he/she has the right to kill intruders.  Moreover, if it’s determined that the homeowner acted lawfully and in self-defense, he/she will avoid civil prosecution. 

However, the passage of the bills, which now need to be reconciled and put before the Governor, have some Virginians scratching their heads.  To many law-abiding gun owners, the state’s longstanding common laws on self-defense provided enough protection.  And if it wasn’t broke, why did they need to fix it?

Here’s a basic rundown of Virginia’s common laws on self-defense, courtesy of the Loudoun Times:

Under the current law, Virginia has two distinct defense laws. The first, often referred to as the “stand your ground” law, cites that if you’re not an uninvolved bystander, you have the ability to defend yourself when attacked. If the attacker is killed under these circumstances, a court can find it to be a justifiable homicide. The second circumstance is if you’re involved in some way, but then attempt to remove yourself from the situation and retreat – yet continue to be pursued. When you can no longer distance yourself from the situation, you have the right to defend yourself. This scenario could fall under an excusable homicide if an attacker is killed.

Sen. Dick Black (R-13th) who voted for the Senate Bill 4 wanted more time to iron out potential wrinkles between the old common laws and the new ‘Castle Doctrine,’ but was forced to heed to the swell of support for the new measure.

“The Castle Doctrine, which was our top priority, has proven to be quiet complex,” Black told local reporters. “On the one hand, we want to retain the extensive protections afforded by Virginia common law. On the other hand, we must avoid creating loopholes for misconduct. We are simply out of time to perfect this bill.”

“As it stands, the bill is quite complex.  However, capturing the extensive body of common law is not an easy task,” Black added. “You should be aware that Virginia already has broad protections imbedded in its extensive case law on this topic extending back to the 1600s. We must be careful to avoid a misstep that would unintentionally diminish gun rights in Virginia.”

This uncertainty about what is gained and potentially what was lost had Ed Levine, an avid Loudoun gun supporter, shaking his head. 

“The bottom line is that it is hard to draft such a bill in a way that doesn’t goof up our current legal protections,” Levine told the Loudon Times. “In that case we are better to do nothing than to make current law worse.”

But sponsor of H.B. 48, Staunton Del. Robert “Dickie” Bell (R-58th), ensured skeptics that the bill expanded self-defense rights for law-abiding citizens. 

“Common law doesn’t provide enough protection in [your] own home,” Bell told the Loudon Times. “The goal of this bill is to [put into law that] there are certain things to do within your home to protect yourself.”

And to put your mind at ease, a cursory analysis suggests that Bell is right.  The bills passed in the House and Senate actually expand self-defense rights, not limit them.  A more in-depth analysis is warranted once the finalized version of the bill(s) is signed into law by the Governor.