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House committee pumps brakes on red flag gun bill 

Monitor staff
Published: 3/13/2019 5:41:36 PM

New Hampshire lawmakers hit the brakes on a proposed “red flag law” Wednesday, after a committee voted to keep the bill another year and continue working on it.

In a unanimous move, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted to retain the bill, which would allow the removal of firearms for certain individuals posing a danger to themselves or others.

An earlier vote to approve the bill and send it to the House floor had secured only six “yes” votes to 14 “no” votes.

The committee action stops the bill from moving forward to the House floor until next year. Committee Chairman Renny Cushing expressed hope that solutions on the divisive topic could be reached.

“I think there’s a sentiment that we need to be able to do something about the epidemic of suicide and gun violence prevention,” the Hampton Democrat said. “But I think there was a sense among some people that some of these issues that were raised about this particular bill needed to be more fully examined.”

Proposed by Durham Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Democrat, House Bill 687 would establish “extreme risk protection orders” – designations by courts to temporarily seize firearms from those with a significant risk of self-harming or attacking others.

The bill would allow family members, intimate partners and law enforcement to file petitions expressing the concerns with the other person and detailing where and how many guns they possessed.

That petition would then be reviewed by the circuit court, which could issue the protection and allow law enforcement to seize the weapons without informing the respondent.

The legislation had already inspired a passionate hearing earlier this month, attracting hundreds of people to Representatives Hall to weigh in. On Wednesday, supportive lawmakers – all of them Democrats – said the bill would make a major dent in preventing suicides, by allowing loved ones to seek the removal of firearms in cases of worrying behaviors, and could head off mass shootings.

“We’re talking about people who may be mentally ill who are at risk for suicide,” said Rep. David Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat. “We’re talking about people who may be mentally unstable who are posting things on social media. They may be threatening to do things like shoot up a school.”

Nashua Democrat Linda Harriott-Gathright said the bill could give a speedy option to terrified family members.

“We heard an awful lot of testimony that hit home for me,” Harriott-Gathright said. “Sometimes people are not stable. And if (there’s) anyone in your home that’s not stable and they have a firearm, I believe that those firearms should be taken from them.”

The legislation, she said, would allow for that phone call.

But gun rights advocates were equally adamant that the bill would not make enough of a dent in gun deaths to justify the possibility of removals that aren’t substantiated.

Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, said the bill hinged too much on interpretation. And he took issue with Harriott-Gathright descriptions of eligible behavior.

“She used the word stable,” he said. “That’s a huge word if somebody is stable. Cause I’ll tell you right now, I’m seeing some friends in here that probably think I’m pretty unstable.”

One bad application, he argued, and the person’s right to defense could be deprived without an easy fix.

Other opponents said that the penalty for filing unsubstantiated reports should be made a felony. And some raised due process concerns, painting the standard of proof as too weak to protect defendants.

An amendment presented by Altschiller Wednesday was intended to address some of those concerns by raising the evidentiary standard to justify the order from “probable cause” to “clear and convincing,” a significantly higher hurdle for the petitioners. But that amendment failed, 10-10, pushing the committee to ultimately delay approval of the bill.

The bill has invited forceful opposition, attracting national attention last week after opposed lawmakers wore pearls during a hearing on the bill, in a move interpreted by some as mocking female supporters.

But Altschiller argued that the pause could see some opposed lawmakers eventually change their mind.

“I think there’s going to have to be education,” she said. “...There’s a will to have extreme risk protection orders. But the way to get there isn’t yet clear for people.”

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