By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — A bill allowing the state to report people to the national gun background check system who have been involuntarily committed for mental illness and a danger to themselves or others, was both supported and trashed at a public hearing Friday.
The bill was inspired by the fatal shooting of unarmed New Hampshire Hospital security officer Bradley Haas, 63, by former patient John Madore, who at one time had his firearms seized due to his mental state.
Madore was killed by a State Trooper at the hospital before Madore could harm anyone else.
Under House Bill 1711, the state would report people who both have been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment and be a danger to themselves or others, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which the state has been unable to do due to conflicting statutes and privacy rights, according to a state Supreme Court ruling.
The bill not only allows the reporting, it also sets up a process for those who recover from their mental illness to recover their legal status to own a gun, which is now not possible for New Hampshire residents.
The bill’s prime sponsor, House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee chair Rep.Terry Roy, R-Deerfield, said the reporting will not begin until the US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency approves the state’s process for those reported to regain their gun ownership rights.
Roy said and the bipartisan sponsors talked to all the stakeholders they could think of in drafting the bill.
The New Hampshire Psychiatric Society and the New Hampshire Medical Society supported the bill, and the Disability Rights Center – NH and the National Alliance of Mental Health – NH were cautiously supportive of the bill.
Supporters said the bill begins to address the gun violence crisis for both homicide and suicide.
Dr. John Hinck, who was at NH Hospital when the shooting occurred, said the bill will legally begin to address gun violence and suicide.
He said he believed the state was reporting to the federal system, but learned it was not and “that created an unsafe public safety situation.”
However others called the bill nothing but a firearms confiscation bill in the guise of mental health and others said it would give people a false sense of security when criminals and others can purchase firearms outside the background check system.
And yet others said Haas would not be dead if he had been able to carry a weapon and the state should be held accountable for that situation.
Andre Beltre, the Northeast director for the National Association for Gun Rights, said he was surprised to see such a bill in the “Live Free or Die state which has historically opposed overreach by the federal government.”
Beltre said the bill was the barring of a “God given Second Amendment Right.”
“Stop this bipartisan attack on the gun owners in New Hampshire,” Beltre said, noting Bradley Haas should have been able to have a firearm for self-defense.
Samantha Swetter, the Associate Medical Director at NH Hospital, was also at the hospital on Nov. 17. She said a coworker ran into her office, slammed the door and said there was a shooter in the lobby and call 911.
She said after she made the call, she realized most people in the building did not know what was going on and were in danger.
Swetter said she tried to use the pager system to inform everyone, but it was down, so she called those whose numbers she could remember.
“I worked there for over five years, they are my family and I couldn’t tell them they were in danger,” Swetter said. “That was one of the worst moments of my life. I am a healthcare professional, I want to help people and for an hour I had to sit there.”
Swetter said after an hour they were evacuated and that was when she learned Haas had been killed. “A person I see every day had been killed 100 feet from my office.”
Karen Rosenberg, policy director of the Disability Rights Center — NH said HB 1711 was a challenging bill that represents a departure for her organization, but could support the bill with changes she discussed with Roy, who presented an amendment.
The center’s concerns were about privacy and the confidentiality of mental health records, she said, and noted the state should supply no more information than is required for reporting to NICS.
Rosenberg also proposed changes to how a person’s firearms would be seized so police do not have to break into someone’s home and search for weapons, which she said would be traumatic for many.
And she proposed a shorter time frame of 60 days for the process needed to return their gun rights to someone who has proven he or she is no longer a danger to himself or others.
“People with mental illness should not be stigmatized or discriminated against,” Rosenberg said. “They should enjoy the same civil rights everybody else can enjoy.”
She said it is a mistake to assume just because someone has a mental illness, that they are dangerous.
Jay Simkin, a federally licensed firearms dealer from Nashua, opposed the bill noting with over 470 million firearms in the country, something that numerous cannot be controlled, noting criminals own, rent and sell firearms outside the federal system.
The notion the bill would stop some mentally ill people who are dangerous is “pulp fiction,” he said. “You may stop some, but you’ll never stop all of them.”
And he said the promise that a person’s civil right to own a gun would be returned is also fiction, noting many will not be able to afford a good lawyer to help them and no doctor is going to give someone a clean bill of health because of the potential liability.
“It’s the roach hotel,” Simkin said. “You can check in, but you can never check out.”
The assumption behind this bill is factually wrong, he said, because once a person’s name is in the FBI’s NICS, there is no way to compel the federal authorities to remove a name.
And he, like several other people testifying against the bill, said the information in the federal system is not always correct and there is no way to change it.
The committee is expected to work on the bill before making a recommendation to the full House.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Garry is InDepthNH.org’s State House bureau chief with 40 years experience as a reporter.