Senate committee in New Hampshire passes red-flag bill

A New Hampshire Senate committee passed a bill Wednesday to allow police or relatives to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

The bill, which was approved by the House on the opening day of the new legislative session, passed the Judiciary Committee 3-2 after a lengthy debate and now moves to the full Senate for a vote. But even if it passes the Democratically-controlled body, it likely will be vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. Earlier this year, he indicated he isn't looking to make changes in gun laws.

New Hampshire would join 19 other states and Washington, D.C., in passing so-called “red flag” laws. Supporters argue such laws can reduce shootings, protect domestic violence victims and prevent suicides.

Among those who testified in favor of the bill were several people whose relatives and friends struggled with mental illness and killed themselves with guns. They argued their relatives might have been saved had this legislation been in place at the time of their deaths.

Rob Leatherbee and his wife, Dr. Margaret Tilton, of Exeter, described how they kept their firearms locked away over concerns about their their 23-year-old son, George, who battled depression and was hospitalized. Still, he managed to buy a handgun and killed himself in 2017.

“George's story illustrates how having lethal means during moments of impulsivity and volatility can result in a fatal outcome,” Leatherbee told the committee, adding that he felt the bill struck the right balance between preservation of individual rights and the necessary protections.

Heidi Hanson, a member of the N.H. Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America, said voters in New Hampshire were counting on Democrats to pass gun-violence prevention measures like this one.

“The people of New Hampshire have spoken through their vote. Your mandate here today from the voters is to move this legislation forward,” she told the committee. “There is no shortage of evidence that the presence of a gun in a volatile situation creates a dangerous opportunity for violence, and, yes, even death — a devastating outcome for families and communities as you've heard here today.”

Scores of opponents, including several gun rights groups, said the measure was a threat to law-abiding gun owners and failed to provide the necessary due process protections should someone be wrongly accused. They argued the bill violates numerous constitutional protections.

"This bill is framed as a public safety bill," Ethan Jennings, a 23-year-old resident from Laconia, said. “Residents of New Hampshire are freedom loving residents of one of the safest states in the union. This bill does nothing to really protect their safety. It only adds to the danger of armed law enforcement coming to their homes under tips from those who may or may not have the best intentions.”

Others said the bill puts domestic abuse survivors at a disadvantage, since they might not be able to use a firearm to protect themselves. They argued the focus should be on expanding mental health treatment.

“All you are doing when you are taking someone's gun away is forcing them to pick another weapon,” Shirley Dawson, who described herself as a domestic abuse survivor, said. “Are you going to take the opioids out of their house, take the knives, the rope, the keys to their car? You are probably not. So, you leave them with just other choices they can make.”