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N.H. House Democrats push for gun safety study committee

Democrats on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee won support yesterday for a study of the state’s gun laws that they say is more balanced than one proposed by Republicans last week.

The bill will now go to the House floor, giving lawmakers a second chance to debate the state’s gun laws and background check system. Last week, the House killed the Republicans’ study commission, 242-118.

Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, proposed the committee as an amendment to a bill about gun licenses for nonresidents by pro-gun Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican. It was a move filled with political symbolism – Hoell sponsored the previous gun study committee in an effort to defeat expanded background checks.

The criminal justice committee voted, 12-6, in favor of Cushing’s amendment, with Republican Rep. Dennis Fields of Sanbornton joining all 11 Democrats. Hoell said he did not know about the amendment before it was introduced and that he was “shocked and appalled” by the committee’s actions.

Membership and mission are the key differences between Cushing’s and the Republicans’ study groups. The Republican group had three House members from each party and a senator appointed by Senate President Chuck Morse, a Republican.

This new study group has 10 members, with one senator appointed by Morse and three House members appointed by Speaker Terri Norelli, a Democrat. New Hampshire’s chapter of the National Alliance of Mentally Ill, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, Gun Owners of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence would each appoint a committee member. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, would appoint a gun store owner and someone from a gun violence prevention group.

“It’s a balanced commission,” Cushing said. “This would be a vehicle where we could have space for thoughtful, public conversation.”

Several Republicans disagreed. Rep. Larry Gagne of Manchester said he thought the committee was stacked against pro-gun initiatives. The bill doesn’t dictate party affiliation of the three members Norelli would appoint.

The commission would be charged with looking at gun violence and ways to improve the background check system, as well as studying laws on access to guns by the mentally ill and the strength of existing penalties for illegal gun use. The Republicans’ committee would have studied the correlation between current state law and the low violent crime rate, as well as whether stricter gun laws are effective at reducing violent crime.

Some Republicans yesterday said the criminal justice committee didn’t have the authority to approve the amendment because it was tacked onto an unrelated bill and should have had a public hearing.

“I don’t believe in hijacking another person’s bill,” said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican.

But Cushing argued his introduction of the amendment was fair because it would also study laws around nonresidents carrying guns in New Hampshire, the topic of Hoell’s original bill.

The commission would have until Dec. 15 to report its findings and make legislative recommendations.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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