N.H. Legislature may see a renewed fight over gun control in 2014
There was passionate debate over gun control this year in state capitols across the country. But not at the State House in Concord, where no major changes to New Hampshire’s gun laws were proposed in the aftermath of last December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
That will change in 2014. More than a dozen gun-related bills are in the works at the Legislature, including measures that would expand background checks before firearm purchases and ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines.
“We need some common-sense gun laws in this country,” said Rep. Elaine Andrews-Ahearn, a Democrat from Hampton Falls. “And we need to make sure that people who are not qualified and should not own weapons do not own weapons: people with mental disorders, criminal backgrounds – people who are likely to use guns in dangerous ways.”
But among leaders from both parties, there may be little appetite for a divisive debate over guns in an election year.
After all, this year’s bill to repeal the 2011 “stand your ground” self-defense law provoked a months-long backlash from gun-rights activists, and only narrowly passed the Democratic-controlled House before meeting a quick end in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I think that there is a consensus in the Senate that folks’ constitutional rights under the Second Amendment should be protected,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican.
“I think we’ve got to walk before we run,” said House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, the Penacook Democrat who sponsored the stand-your-ground repeal. “Seeing the reluctance of the other body dealing with the repeal of stand your ground, I don’t think any bills . . . would have much of a chance in the Senate this session.”
Guns on the table
On Jan. 2, the House spent more than two hours debating whether to reinstate a decades-old ban on carrying deadly weapons in Representatives Hall. In the end, the new Democratic majority prevailed, and the rule that had been lifted in 2011 was reinstated on a 196-153 vote.
That was pretty much the Legislature’s last sustained debate on gun control in 2013. A handful of bills had been filed in the House – one banned pistols from being carried openly in public buildings, another made it legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit – but none went far. And while gun rights were often invoked during the debate over stand your ground, repeal advocates were adamant that the bill had nothing to do with guns.
The task of crafting a new two-year state budget took up much of the Legislature’s attention this year. And timing may have been an issue: The Dec. 14 slaying of six adults and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which sparked a national debate over gun violence, took place after the House’s filing deadline for 2013 bills, and less than a week before the Senate deadline.
In dozens of other states, by contrast, lawmakers took up bills this year on both sides of the gun-control debate. New restrictions became law in Colorado, New York and other states, while new laws expanding and protecting gun rights were enacted in a number of other states.
National politicians took up the issue, too. The U.S. Senate debated whether to expand the use of background checks for firearm purchases, but the measure was blocked in April by Republicans and a handful of Democrats.
On the agenda
But now the state budget is done, and the Legislature will begin the second year of its session in January. And when it does, gun control will be on the agenda.
More than a dozen legislative service requests – LSRs, or preliminary indicators of legislation to come – have already been filed for 2014 bills that deal with guns. Some seek new restrictions, while others seek broader protections.
One would make firearms records confidential and exempt from the state’s right-to-know law. Another would make it a crime to enforce any new federal laws that ban large ammunition magazines or certain types of weapons.
“It would be to override anything federal that they’re going to try to impose on New Hampshire because of mass shootings taking place around the country,” said Rep. Lenette Peterson, a Merrimack Republican and sponsor of the latter bill. “The mass shootings aren’t being done by legal gun owners, so why punish those who have them?”
On the other side, Sen. David Pierce is sponsoring an expansion of background checks that he said would mirror the so-called Manchin-Toomey proposal that was blocked in the U.S. Senate.
“I don’t think anybody would advocate for criminals and the mentally ill having firearms, running around in our neighborhoods. . . . It’s a sensible, middle-of-the-road proposal,” said Pierce, an Etna Democrat.
Andrews-Ahearn filed three LSRs dealing with guns. She said she probably won’t move forward with one, a bill establishing a gun registry, and instead will focus on proposals for expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
“I think a lot of people are looking at us as Democrats and saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything?’ ” Andrews-Ahearn said.
(Not) spoiling for a fight
Given the hot-button nature of gun control, it appears likely that both the House and Senate will see lively debates next year.
But that doesn’t mean any of the bills will become law.
“I don’t know that the House (does), and I don’t think the Senate has the appetite to move forward with that kind of legislation,” Shurtleff said. “It could be a futile effort.”
Polls have found wide support in New Hampshire for expanded background checks, but a split electorate on gun control in general. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll this summer found 46 percent of residents favor stricter gun laws while 14 percent want less-strict laws and 37 percent want no changes; the poll, taken July 18-29, had a margin of error of 4.3 percent.
Opponents of gun control often have loud voices and deep pockets. In Colorado, Democrats this year enacted new restrictions on ammunition magazines and expanded background checks. But in September, voters recalled two of the state senators who voted for the measures – an effort backed by the National Rifle Association.
“New Hampshire has no additional appetite for gun-control measures. . . . If the Democrats would like to stay in office, they need to stop hammering on the gun rights,” said Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican and vocal gun-rights advocate.
Bradley said the Senate, with its 13-11 GOP majority, is unlikely to embrace gun control next year – with one possible exception. He said legislation addressing access to guns by the mentally ill “might get some traction.”
Under federal law, it’s illegal to sell a gun to someone who’s been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital or otherwise “adjudicated mentally defective.” But mental health records are confidential under New Hampshire law, and so aren’t made available during the background check process.
Legislation to fix that problem would be smaller than any sweeping measures to tighten or expand gun laws. But Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, may focus her attention next year on that limited goal.
“Our office has asked state agencies to evaluate and make recommendations for addressing New Hampshire-specific public safety challenges, and it is clear that one of the most pressing issues is that New Hampshire does not provide the background check system with information about individuals who should not be sold a firearm due to serious mental illness,” said Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg in a statement.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)