N.H. House committee takes testimony on bill to annul mental health records

Last modified: 4/10/2014 8:36:34 AM
Both the attorney general’s office and the state Department of Safety urged lawmakers yesterday not to pass a bill that would allow people to annul their mental health records, therefore restoring their rights to purchase firearms.

New Hampshire doesn’t report the names of people adjudicated as mentally ill to the national background checks system. As originally written, this bill would have required the state to start reporting that information while also creating a way for people to annul their records if they were no longer deemed mentally ill. But after hearing concerns from mental health and gun groups, the reporting piece was removed.

Opponents of the new bill question whether an annulment process is necessary if the state isn’t putting mentally ill people into the system in the first place.

“It creates a confusing process by providing relief from the (background checks system) by people who haven’t even been entered into (it),” Assistant Commissioner of Safety Earl Sweeney said.

Sweeney and others testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the bill, which has already passed the Senate. Many of the committee members’ questions related to whether the bill created a strict enough procedure for the annulment of records.

Under the bill, someone can file with the court system to have their record annulled upon expiration of an involuntary treatment or commitment order, or when the appointment of guardianship is terminated. To deny annulment of the records, a judge would need to show by clear and convincing evidence that the person is in a mental state where he could provide danger or harm to himself or others or harm the public interest. It doesn’t specifically say, for example, that a judge must look at the most recent mental health report or talk to people who have treated the petitioner.

“Why have such an informal and scattered proceeding?” asked Rep. Paul Berch, a Westmoreland Democrat.

But Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, argued that the burden to take away someone’s constitutional rights and to keep them away from that person should rest with the state.

“We’re dealing with the awesome power of the state to take away someone’s freedom,” he said. “I think it is incumbent upon the state which has taken away freedoms to justify that.”

Annulling mental health records would affect more than just a person’s ability to buy guns, Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said. If a person’s record was annulled and they were later recommitted to the state hospital, there would be no way to check their previous records, she said.

Sweeney, of the Department of Safety, suggested that if the bill is passed, it should include a waiting period of several years after expiration of involuntary commitment before someone can petition to have their records annulled in case they’re committed again.

Pro-gun groups that support the bill’s intention were divided on some of the language. The Second Amendment Sisters suggested an amendment to the bill that would disconnect the mental health record annulment from one’s right to obtain a gun. The bill as written puts the annulment process under a section of the state’s law governing gun purchases. The Second Amendment Sisters think it should be under the state’s mental health laws instead, said Jenn Coffey, national director of legislative affairs for the Second Amendment Sisters.

But Evan Nappen of Pro-Gun New Hampshire urged the committee to keep the annulment process under the state’s gun statutes. A 2007 update to the federal law governing the background checks system says if a state enacts an annulment process, the federal government will abide by it, Nappen said. He and others testifying in support of the bill said the state should take the chance to eliminate unfair restrictions on the rights of the mentally ill.

“Here’s a chance for the state to do something to exercise state power to get rid of a disqualifier that’s been there unfairly,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee must vote on the bill by May 8. It will then go to the House floor.

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

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