By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House approved a “red flag” bill Wednesday that opponents called “gun-grabbing” but supporters said would help curb the state’s growing suicide and homicide rates.
Perhaps the most controversial bill lawmakers debated on the first day of the 2020 session, House Bill 687 would allow firearms to be confiscated from someone who is a risk to himself or herself or to others.
“This (bill) will show the people of New Hampshire,” said Rep. Nancy Murphy, D-Merrimack, who chaired a subcommittee that revised the bill, “we are serious about public safety.”
She said the bill provides a protective barrier between the person who may harm himself or others and access to firearms.
But opponents said the bill would allow a person’s guns to be confiscated without any due process rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
“You can lose your guns, your property by hearsay, which violates the Bill of Rights,” said Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown. “This completely tramples due process.”
The bill has the backing of a wide array of organizations and agencies as a “half-way” measure between current laws and greater gun-control legislation.
Although 17 states and Washington D.C. have “red flag laws,” here the bill has been vigorously opposed by gun rights groups who claim the bill has too many flaws.
Rep. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, said the bill would simply disarm someone and not address the underlying reason for why the person wants to harm himself or others.
And he said the bill only addresses firearms, not other methods of harm such as knives and drugs.
The bill would allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to confiscate a person’s firearms due to the person’s mental condition.
A court would hear the petition and make a determination.
Supporters say the the bill would allow early intervention to prevent a tragedy while not permanently taking a person’s guns.
The bill’s prime sponsor Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, said since the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee first held a public hearing on the bill last spring, the state’s suicide and homicide rates have grown.
According to federal statistics, New Hampshire has had one of the largest increases in suicide rates — 45 percent — compared to other states, she noted.
“Suicide is preventable,” Altschiller said, “there are measures we can take to curb this epidemic.”
Supporters also said the bill has been “tightened” since it was first introduced by requiring a higher standard of evidence, limiting who can petition the court, and increasing penalties for false accusations.
But opponents said much more work needs to be done because a person’s firearms could be confiscated without any legal response in ex parte hearings over the telephone and it continues to encourage abuse by disgruntled family members.
“This could work against any one of us,” said Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston. “All someone needs to do is make a complaint.”
He said a police officer could show up at your door with a search warrant, and could tear apart your house looking for firearms.
“If you have a mental problem this isn’t going to help, there are other ways to do this,” Welch said. “To have your house turned inside out without any advanced knowledge at all is not the way to deal with someone who is mentally ill.”
The House approved the sub-committee’s amendment on a 213-162 vote, and approved the amended bill on a 201-176 vote.
The bill drew a crowd last spring and controversy when several criminal justice committee members wore pearls, which proponents said was intended to mock them.
The House barely missed an opportunity to bypass a near certain veto by Gov. Chris Sununu of an independent commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries, but did vote 224-141 to approve a bill to do the same thing.
The House voted 217-150 to approve proposed constitutional amendment CACR 9 to establish an independent redistricting commission just missing the required 60 percent majority needed to send the proposal to the Senate.
If the Senate approved the bill by a 60 percent majority, the question would have been on the general election ballot.
Supporters said voters should be able to decide if they want an independent commission or continue with the current system where the majority party controls the process.
The House did approve Senate Bill 8 to establish an independent commission to redraw the boundaries for Congressional, Executive Council, Senate and House districts.
Lawmakers would still have to approve the plan developed by the commission.
“Do the right thing for New Hampshire voters and vote for an independent redistricting commission,” said Rep. Connie Lane, D-Concord. “Put the interest of New Hampshire voters before our own.”
She refuted the contention of bill opponents that gerrymandering is rare in New Hampshire, instead saying it is the norm.
The bill faces a sure veto by Sununu, who vetoed a similar bill last year after the Senate voted unanimously for a bipartisan agreement
The bill goes to House Finance Committee for further review.
The House Finance Committee will also review Senate Bill 7, which would establish a program to automatically register voters when they obtain a driver’s license.
The information would be transferred to town and city clerks and updated automatically.
Opponents said if the intent is to improve voter participation, New Hampshire already has the highest participation rate in the country.
The bill passed 203-163.
The House approved making election day a state holiday.
Family and Medical Leave
The House voted 215-141 for a family and medical leave program nearly identical to one Sununu vetoed last session.
House Bill 712 would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 60 percent of wages.
The bill would be available to private sector workers covered by unemployment insurance, state workers and be open to municipal employees.
The governor said the bill amounts to an income tax and has proposed a leave program for state workers that could be expanded to the private sector.
The House approved a bill that would allow anyone under 25 years old when he or she was convicted of simple possession drug related crime to petition for an annulment for arrest, conviction or sentence.
The House agreed to make one change in the bill, and the Senate is expected to concur with the change which will send it to the governor.
The House approved two bills that would expand medical marijuana to include those suffering from opioid addiction and misuse, anxiety, insomnia and Lyme disease.
The bills go to the Senate.
With no debate, the House approved House Bill 690 to eliminate the work requirement under the state’s expanded Medicaid expansion program, under the Affordable Care Act.
The Legislature had approved the work requirement two years ago, but federal courts have found similar requirements to be unconstitutional.
The state has not tried to enforce the requirement after the federal court rulings.
By one vote, 179-178, the house tabled a bill that would have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.
The House also approved:
House Bill 201, which increases the penalty from a class B to class A felony for paying for sex with a human trafficking victim under 18 years old. The bill was approved on a 316-55 vote.
House Bill 501, to establish a cost-of-care fund to assist communities caring for animals seized in cruelty cases.
House Bill 640 establishing a registration fees for canoes and kayaks.
The House killed:
House Bill 408, to establish a procedure to postpone town meetings and local elections.
House Bill 470, to allow the state to accept cryptocurrencies.
House Bill 497, to have the state pay a portion of the retirement system costs for cities, towns, schools and counties.
House Bill 538, to increase road tolls.
Bills given a polite death or interim study by the House were:
House Bill 722, allowing the retail sale of marijuana and taxing it.
House Bill 541, to allocate electoral college electors on the popular vote.
House Bill 728, to allow ranked-choice voting.
House Bill 405, allowing businesses other than breweries to sell beer in refillable growlers.
The House meets again Thursday at 10 to continue working on bills left from the 2019 session.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com