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Changes to New Hampshire’s concealed carry license application trigger concern from gun rights activists

Last modified: 9/29/2014 12:23:50 AM
The Department of Safety is reissuing the state’s concealed carry gun license application for the second time in two months after complaints from gun rights activists prompted the department to withdraw some of the changes it made to the form this summer.

The department’s latest move isn’t appeasing all critics, and one state legislator said he plans to propose a bill this session that would roll back gun restrictions in the state. The disagreement has shed light on the state’s concealed carry permitting process that the head of a New Hampshire police chiefs organization calls “weak, at best.”

The changes began this summer. In response to a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision and general suggestions, the Department of Safety revised in August the application form used by local police departments and officials to issue concealed carry and loaded handgun licenses. Based on information in the one-page application form, local officials determine if an applicant “is a suitable person to be licensed.”

In the August revision, the department reworked language on the back of the application form and added three additional questions – to the existing five – on the front to offer what might be “useful information for the licensing authority to know,” said Department of Safety Assistant Commissioner Earl Sweeney in an email.

The new questions asked whether an applicant had held a resident gun license before, whether a state or federal agency had previously claimed the applicant was prohibited from possessing a firearm or whether the applicant is prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm.

The changes angered guns rights groups.

“Your rights are under direct attack,” wrote Jonathan Evans, president of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, in an Aug. 12 post that appeared on the group’s website and which called on members to contact government officials with their concerns. “Without notice, and without prior solicitation of comments from the public, a bureaucrat in Concord has exceeded his statutory authority, and added new requirements to the New Hampshire pistol/revolver (concealed carry) licensing process.”

The group raised concerns about the new questions on the form, which Evans wrote were “irrelevant” and could invite police chiefs to deny permits for “flimsy” reasons.

In response to public complaints that the three questions were too vague, the department decided to remove them and reissued the form Sept. 10 – with just the original five questions.

“We considered their complaints and agreed that from the perspective of an applicant filling out the form, their concerns were valid,” Sweeney said. “We didn’t take a critical enough read of those new questions, and the way one of them was worded, it could be misinterpreted by an applicant.”

Gun rights activists also expressed concerns about changes to the back of the form, but that portion is not changing, Sweeney said.

In August, the department removed a section that explained the state’s gun laws on licence to carry. It replaced it with the actual wording of the state law in response to a May New Hampshire Supreme Court decision that deemed the form’s prior language impermissible, said Department of Safety spokesman Michael Todd.

State Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican and secretary of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, met with Sweeney in August to express his concerns about the revised form. And on Friday, he said he is still unsatisfied that the department will not restore the wording on the back of the form. The prior wording he said made it clear that “if you can own a firearm, you should be issued a license.”

The way it appears now, he said, “further restricts who will be issued a firearm license.”

To remedy that, Hoell said that if he wins re-election in November, he plans to support and pass a “constitutional carry” bill that addresses the license changes and makes clear that anyone who owns a firearm is allowed to carry it.

“So you don’t need to receive permission from the state,” he said. “It is very simple, if you can own and purchase, you can carry.”

Penny Dean, a Concord-based private attorney who advocates for firearm rights, said she too is disappointed the explanation of the law on the back of the form will not be restored. “It put the language of the law in what I call simple declaratory terms; how many average people can look at a law and understand what it means?” Dean said. “They took off the words on the back of the application which should have been there . . . ‘if you can own a firearm, you should be issued a license.’ ”

Dean said she had other concerns with sections that hadn’t changed, including the portions where applicants must list references. “I think it’s just a matter of time before (the form) faces more lawsuits,” she said.

Police reaction

Several police chiefs said the changes had little effect on their issuing practices over the past two months.

“We are still running the same checks, then gauging it based upon the records,” said Concord police Deputy Chief Greg Taylor. The department processed 617 concealed carry permits in 2013, and so far this year, it has processed roughly 370.

The three added questions didn’t effect or change how the Concord Police Department issues permits. “None would have been approved or denied based on those questions,” Taylor said.

Enfield police Chief Richard Crate Jr., who also serves as president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed; the changes didn’t really affect the issuing process. “Obviously any kind of more information we have on somebody, it makes us better informed to issue a permit,” Crate said, but he added the problem is not with the application form, but with the law itself.

It calls on the permitting officials to make a determination on who is a suitable person. “Who is a suitable? The way that the laws work is where the problem is,” he said; it’s very vague and up to interpretation. And, it makes the state’s permitting process weak, Crate said. “For you to get a license to drive a car, you have to go through a few more steps. You don’t have to go through those steps to carry a concealed weapon.”

(This story has been updated to correctly identify the New Hampshire Department of Safety, it was misstated as the Department of Public Safety. Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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