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Gun rights bill comes under fire

Last modified: 2/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Republican leaders and lawmakers are united in wanting to remove licensing requirements for individuals who carry concealed weapons. But a broad bill that would, among other things, allow guns in courthouses and place criminal penalties on law enforcement officers, has highlighted a fissure, even among gun rights activists.

House Speaker William O'Brien and House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt have asked freshman Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, to withdraw his gun rights bill, calling it an 'unacceptable risk' for New Hampshire residents.

'While I am a strong advocate for the state and federal constitutional right to own and carry firearms, including the right of constitutional carry, this legislation vastly exceeds any reasonable standard of an individual's right to bear arms,' O'Brien said.

Four of the bill's nine co-sponsors have backed away from the legislation, and others say they want the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to remove some of its provisions. House leaders say they will instead push for a narrower bill sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Coffey, an Andover Republican.

'Anytime you have to come out publicly against a member of your caucus it's an unpleasant, unwelcome development,' Bettencourt said. 'But we worked hard to get Rep. Hoell to appreciate the glaring flaws in his bill. It is unfortunate at the end of the day that we couldn't convince him that his bill as drafted simply wasn't responsible.'

Hoell did not return calls for comment.

The core of both Hoell's and Coffey's bills is the principle of constitutional carry, which means anyone who has a right to own a gun has a right to carry it - either openly or concealed. Similar laws are in place in a handful of states including Alaska, Arizona and Vermont.

Under current law, anyone who is allowed to own a gun in New Hampshire can carry it openly without a license. But a person needs a license to carry concealed. Under state law, the four-year license costs $10 for a New Hampshire resident and is given by town or city officials to any 'suitable person' with a 'proper purpose,' which includes fear of injury to person or property, hunting, target shooting and self-defense. Nonresidents can get licenses for $100.

Coffey's bill would let anyone who is allowed to own a gun carry openly or concealed, loaded or unloaded, on their person or in their car, without obtaining a license. It also states that nonresidents no longer need to obtain a license to carry a gun in New Hampshire.

Hoell's bill is much broader. Like Coffey's bill, it removes the licensing requirement for anyone who wants to carry concealed. (Both bills would include an optional licensing provision, to make it easier for gun owners to qualify for reciprocal out-of-state licenses.)

Hoell would extend the optional license time from four years to 10 years. He would also impose penalties on anyone who restricts gun rights. That includes arresting anyone who denies a person a gun license without justification. The bill would also require that a public official be charged with a misdemeanor and declared unqualified for public office if the official interferes with the right to carry - for example by stopping or detaining a person for carrying a firearm or other weapon for self-defense. Hoell would allow guns and deadly weapons in courtrooms. He would repeal the criminal penalty for selling or possessing blackjacks or brass knuckles.

Rep. Steve Cunningham, a Sunapee Republican and early co-sponsor of Hoell's bill, said he liked some concepts of the bill, but stopped supporting it because of the details.

'We have a very nice, very intelligent but freshman representative who apparently had in mind that getting bills passed is like good old Yankee horse trading,' Cunningham said. 'He purposefully put in things that were unreasonable in the hopes of trading down to what he thought was necessary.'

For example, Cunningham does not support allowing guns in courtrooms.

Cunningham said Coffey's bill has some flaws with the wording, but a House committee can fix those.

'The problem with Mr. Hoell's bill was that it required so much of a rewrite that that is beyond the scope of a committee,' Cunningham said.

One of the biggest issues that some pro-gun activists have with Hoell's bill is that it changes the definition of who is allowed to possess a firearm. It bans possession for convicted felons or those who are incarcerated or under court order in a mental institution. But it does not address children, illegal immigrants or someone who is the subject of a protective order because of domestic violence. While those prohibitions are included in federal law, the state and local police can only enforce federal laws if they are included in state statute.

'Unfortunately, Rep. Hoell's bill goes way beyond what I think is acceptable, to allow for a person who's been arrested for domestic abuse to carry,' Coffey said.

Bettencourt said Hoell's bill would not allow the police to intercede when someone with mental health problems had a weapon - such as the alleged shooter of Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - or if a child were using a weapon.

Republican Sens. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, Tom DeBlois of Manchester and Gary Lambert of Nashua, who co-sponsored Hoell's bill, issued a joint statement that they cannot support Hoell's bill as introduced and would consider Coffey's bill.

Sen. Ray White, a Bedford Republican, said he stands by his sponsorship but hopes the committee will get rid of certain provisions.

'Even in the Wild West, you couldn't bring a gun into a courthouse,' White said.

But the strong condemnation from House leaders has drawn some backlash. Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, said in a release sent out by the House Republican office that Hoell's bill 'has some serious unintended consequences,' and he would support Coffey's bill. Burt later retracted that statement and said he would support sending the bill to a committee and not withdrawing it.

'I just feel that if this or any other bill is removed because some may not like the context of a bill, we as representatives of this great state will be doing the voters a disservice,' he said.

The discussion has also drawn attention to disputes between New Hampshire's various gun groups. Coffey and O'Brien are both advisers to the group Pro-Gun New Hampshire. Evan Nappen, general counsel for the group, is a strong supporter of Coffey's bill - and a critic of Hoell's. Nappen criticized Hoell's changes to the laws governing possession, and his lifting of the ban on guns in court. He also questioned Hoell's penalties on police officers.

'If someone was walking into a bank with an AK-47 in plain view, it would be a crime for that officer to interfere with the person's right to carry that firearm,' Nappen said.

Nappen said the right to have any weapon for self-defense could allow a person to walk around with a hand grenade, and it would be illegal for the police to question him. Similarly, he said, the bill could allow children to bring guns to school and open law enforcement officers up to criminal prosecutions for trying to stop them.

'It's so overbroad, it creates these issues that I don't think politically and for safety, it's something we really want,' Nappen said.

On the other hand, Alan Rice, treasurer of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, of which Hoell is a former board member, criticized Coffey's bill for making it harder for New Hampshire residents to get gun licenses out of state. He said Hoell's bill addresses the important issue of penalties for police officers or selectmen who 'play fast and loose' with gun licensing laws. It also addresses the dangerous situation where people go to court and leave guns in their cars.

'Rep Hoell's bill creates true constitutional carry in New Hampshire,' Rice said.

Rice said the bill deserves to be heard by a committee, without pressure from House leaders to withdraw it.

'I think that Bill O'Brien is running a legislative dictatorship,' he said.

The national group Gun Owners of America also supports Hoell's bill. Michael Hammond of Dunbarton, a legislative adviser to the group, said the group likes Hoell's bill because it prohibits abuses by law enforcement. But Hammond said the group would support Coffey's bill as well.

Either bill is likely to draw condemnation from Democrats. Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein called both bills 'dangerous and reckless.'

'House Republicans have already exposed themselves as extremist with an anti-New Hampshire agenda,' Kirstein said. 'They aren't focused on jobs or the economy.'

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)


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