By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — An Exeter doctor told lawmakers Tuesday that her son might be alive today if New Hampshire had a “red flag” law allowing law enforcement to confiscate firearms from people considered a danger to themselves or to others.
During an all-day, often emotional public hearing on House Bill 687, which would establish a “red flag” law, supporters and opponents made impassioned pleas to either pass the bill or kill it.
Opponents, some of whom each wore a long string of pearls, claimed the bill is unconstitutional for a number of reasons, including the right to bear arms, due process and unwarranted confiscation.
“How many days a week do I have to take off to defend rights written in both the New Hampshire and federal constitutions,” said Larry Cleveland of Rindge. “People will die if this bill becomes law.”
Shannon Watts of Colorado, founder of the group Moms Demand Action for Guns Sense, tweeted from the State House showing photos of some members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee wearing the pearls.
Watts tweeted: “Of the 13 person ERPO hearing committee, 10 of the lawmakers are men; half of them are wearing pearls to mock @MomsDemand volunteers. Meanwhile, their constituents are in tears as they testify about gun suicides and domestic gun violence in their families. #NHPolitics”
The pearls were distributed by the Women’s Defense League in opposition to the bill.
Supporters argued red flag laws have worked in the 14 states that approved them including Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
They said the laws prevent suicide by gun which is 90 percent effective, and has helped prevent several mass killings, including in Vermont when an 18-year-old with plans for a massacre was arrested the day the law went into effect.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those 10 to 34 years old in New Hampshire,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, “and half of those were with firearms.”
She said between 2011 and 2017, there were 1,200 suicides in New Hampshire, and over 550 were committed with guns.
Ken Norton, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness-NH, said 90 percent of the people who attempt suicide do not die by suicide, with the only exception being those using firearms, which are 90 percent successful.
Extreme risk order
Red flag laws allow family or household members, an intimate partner or law enforcement officer to petition a district court for a temporary “extreme risk protection order” to remove access to firearms if the person in crisis is a danger to himself, herself or others.
A written affidavit signed by the petitioner would be filed with the petition, and after an evidentiary hearing, the judge could issue the order preventing the person from buying, possessing or receiving any firearms.
The order could also direct the person to turn over all firearms and ammunition to local law enforcement.
The judge would determine the length of time the order would be in effect, and if a person appeals the order, he or she would have to convince the judge that he or she no longer poses a significant risk to themselves or to others.
Supporters said a pattern of troubling behavior is needed for a judge to grant an order, but opponents said there are not enough protections in the bill to prevent abuse of the system by an angry ex-wife or ex-husband or family member.
Several people who testified said a red flag law would fill a gap in state law between involuntary confinement and domestic violence petitions allowing more intervention.
Margaret Tilton, the Exeter doctor, told of her son’s struggle with depression and how he did what he was supposed to do; he took his medicine, he went to his appointments and was hospitalized on several occasions. Despite his history, he was able to purchase a gun, Tilton said. The only reason he purchased a gun was if he attempted suicide that he wanted to be successful, she said.
An Exeter police officer was able to convince her son to turn over his gun the first time, Tilton said, but he purchased another gun and made his one and only suicide attempt.
“It was the last thing he did in his life,” Tilton said.
He was a kind and generous person who helped others, she said, but his behavior escalated and there were red flags.
“There should have been trip wires to a more robust response,” Tilton said. “We know there are better tools out there. We ask you to give us access to them.”
Others testifying said the bill as proposed had some significant problems that need much more work.
Jeanne Hruska, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union-NH said the evidentiary standards need to be much higher in order to take someone’s constitutional rights away. She said excluding technical rules for evidence would allow “double or triple hearsay evidence — a game of telephone — to deprive someone of their rights.”
Others were concerned about the lack of due process and said police would be in harm’s way when they go to confiscate the guns and ammunition.
“This bill violates the natural rights of people to defend themselves,” said Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack. “In the end, police and citizens will be killed.”
Others said the bill focuses on guns and not the root cause of the problem – people.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said people have testified about incidents from around the country, or on TV.
“Where is the issue in New Hampshire we are trying to fix,” Baldasaro said. “This makes law abiding citizens criminals. When are we going to legislate against criminals?”
Cleveland said the biggest killer in New Hampshire is not suicide, but opioid overdoses. The target of the bill ought to be drugs and not guns, he said.
“This has nothing to do with anyone’s safety,” Cleveland said. “This is gun phobia.”
Portsmouth Psychiatrist Leonard Korn, the past president of the NH Medical Society, said gun violence is a growing concern for physicians.
“We see the blood. We see the injuries. We see the death,” Korn said. “We see the survivors in our offices and rehab centers.”
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has until March 14 to make a recommendation on HB 687.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org