By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Down party lines and after three hours of testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill supporters say will help prevent suicide, but opponents contend tramples fundamental constitutional rights.
House Bill 687, which passed the committee on a 3-2 vote, would establish a civil procedure to deny someone who is at risk of harming himself or herself or others access to their firearms and ammunition.
The bill would establish “extreme risk protection orders” through a civil process initiated by a person’s family, housemates or law enforcement.
“This is designed to put a speed bump in the way of people who are most likely to do harm to themselves and others around them,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham. “This will fill a gap through a civil order to help those people in crisis.”
But opponents claim the “red flag” bill is a slippery slope to gun confiscation, open to abuse by an angry spouse, ex-lover or frustrated neighbor, and violates many Bill of Rights protections.
“This red flag bill is nothing but a witch hunt, but instead of being on trial for being a witch, New Hampshire citizens would be on trial for being gun owners,” said Kimberly Morin, of the Women’s Defense League. “This isn’t about protection this is about gun confiscation.”
The bill was introduced in the 2019 session but was retained by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for further work.
An amended version of the bill was approved by the House Jan. 8 by a 201-176 vote this session and sent to the Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had not had a public hearing on the bill when legislative work was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After the House committee’s work, the bill now requires a higher standard of evidence and increases penalties for false accusations.
But opponents Wednesday said the changes are not enough because a person’s firearms could be confiscated without any legal response in ex parte hearings over the telephone and continues to encourage abuse by disgruntled family members.
Under the bill, all petitions to the district court would need to be signed and the petitioner would swear under oath to its content.
A hearing would need to be held within seven days and the subject of the petition would have an opportunity to contest the accusations.
At Wednesday’s public hearing, the bill was supported by physical and mental health providers and advocates, anti-gun violence groups such as Moms Demand Action, and those who lost a child or friend to suicide, while opponents included gun rights groups, the National Rifle Association, and personal freedom advocates.
Altschiller said suicide is the second leading cause of death in New Hampshire for those between the ages of 10 and 34. Firearms are used in 50 percent of suicide attempts and fatal in 90 percent of the attempts, she said.
New Hampshire law allows gun confiscation in only three areas, domestic violence and stalking, and both of those are criminal statutes, and the involuntary emergency admissions, which is civil, she said.
“What is available to people in crisis? Only one option: a wellness check by local law enforcement,” Altschiller said. “This will fill the gap for people in crisis.”
Tracy Hahn-Burkett of the Kent Street Coalition said gun violence is a public health crisis just like the coronavirus is.
What is different is the high rates of suicide in New Hampshire especially among the young, she said.
“House Bill 687 is one answer, but it’s not a panacea,” Hahn-Burkett said.
Many opponents were concerned about due process rights under the legislation, saying the requirements to take a person’s personal property — their guns — are too lax and once those firearms have been removed, it is difficult to get them back.
Under the bill, a person can be denied firearms for up to a year and would have to petition the court to have them returned.
Concord attorney Penny Dean said bill supporters say it is just an inconvenience to have guns temporarily taken.
“It’s an absolute nightmare, not an inconvenience, and it could be life threatening,” she said. “Once they are taken, it can take weeks if not months to get guns backs and it never happens that someone is charged for a false report.”
She claimed the poor and those without a lot of education will be the most harmed by the bill, saying they cannot afford an attorney to get them back, or afford to buy another one.
Others noted a petition would trigger notification to the national data base of people forbidden from owning a firearm, which is nearly impossible to get off once you are on it.
Numerous speakers said the bill violates not just the Second Amendment but also those concerning seizure of private property and individual rights.
Lauren LaPage, National Rifle Association representative for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, said while the bill allows a court to declare someone is too dangerous to own a gun, it does not require a mental health evaluation, or treatment after the guns have been removed.
“This is ripe for abuse,” LaPage said.
The Senate will act on the bill Monday, and if it is approved will go to the governor’s desk. Gov. Chris Sununu has said he does not support any changes in gun laws.
The committee, on a 3-2 vote, approved a bill to allow medical monitoring of a person who has been exposed to a toxic chemical although he or she is not currently ill.
The bill is aimed at exposure to PFAs (polyfluoroalkyls) which has contaminated drinking water around the state particularly in Merrimack and the Seacoast.
Republicans on the committee, Sens. Sharon Carson, Londonderry, and Harold French, Webster, said the bill was too broad and needed a narrower focus.
On a 5-0 vote, the committee approved a plan to allow electronic notarization of documents and electronic will witnessing, which supporters said would particularly help in the current pandemic with elderly patients.
The bill has the support of the court system.
The Senate meets Monday at 1 p.m. in Representatives Hall.
The House meets Tuesday at 10 a.m. at Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org