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Senate bill would allow shooting victims in gun-free zones to sue for damages

Sierra Vista Republican David Gowan, chosen by party members to be the next House speaker, talks with reporters Wednesday about priorities for the next two years.  (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Sierra Vista Republican David Gowan, chosen by party members to be the next House speaker, talks with reporters Wednesday about priorities for the next two years. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX - State lawmakers voted Thursday to create a financial disincentive for state and local governments -- and even schools -- to try to keep weapons off their property.

SB 1664, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, says that anyone who injured while in a government-created "gun-free zone" can sue that agency for any damages.

It now goes to the full Senate.

All the victim would have to show is that a reasonable person would believe that the injury would not have occurred if the victim had been allowed to keep a weapon to defend himself or herself.

Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, who is sponsoring SB 1664, said the law is justified.

"If a government entity creates gun-free zones which prohibit a law-abiding citizen from defending themselves, that if harm comes to them because of that policy, that government entity will be held liable for the damages,'' he said. "So the point is, if you're going to have a policy like this you protect the citizen or allow them to protect themselves, or there will be consequences."

Stephanie Richardson, a volunteer with Moms Demanding Action, a group that seeks new gun regulations, told lawmakers that approving this measure sends the wrong message.

"This bill would have a chilling effect on government entities choosing to exercise their authority to take the steps they feel are necessary to keep their citizens safe,'' she said. And Howard Neiberg, another member of the same organization, said this measure would work against public safety.

"Allowing guns in places has already been proven to be a heightened risk of safety, putting Arizona families and communities at risk,'' he said.

Gowan said the goal of his bill actually is just the reverse.

The problem with the current law, Gowan said, is that it allows government agencies to put up signs declaring the buildings and the surrounding areas to be gun-free zones.

"Criminals don't care about law," he said.

"They don't say, 'Oh, there's a sticker on the wall here that says no guns so I'd better not bring a gun in,'' Gowan continued. "What you're saying is the law-abiding citizen who sees that, they're not going to take it in.''

The result, he said, is that the unarmed person is left defenseless because of the policy.

And Gowan said he's not concerned that his legislation will result in -- and potentially encourage -- people who go into schools to bring their weapons with them and not leave them in their vehicles.

"What I'm concerned with is that anybody that's a law-abiding citizen is protected, at all times,'' he said. "That's the issue.''

Merissa Hamilton told lawmakers that, as a survivor of domestic violence, she has to carry a gun to protect herself.

Only thing is, Hamilton said, is she was working for a member of the Phoenix city council. And that building has a no-guns policy.

She described an incident with a homeless person who was "acting erratic and having a mental health crisis and attacked me several times.''

"There was no one there to protect me and I had to wait for police to arrive, cowering once again in fear and having to relive the violence that happened to me prior,'' Hamilton said.

"Being able to carry a gun saves my life,'' she said. "And if government is going to prohibit that then they should have to be responsible for keeping me safe.''

Roxanne Pitones, lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, told lawmakers one problem with the measure is that it makes local governments "strictly liable'' for any injury that occurs to anyone in a public building. She said that goes far beyond existing laws that allow people who believe they were injured to sue, but with a requirement to prove in court that the injury was caused at least in part by the government agency's negligence.

That did not bother Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. He said that cities are still entitled to due process, even with strict liability.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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