Senate passes firearms restriction bills on party lines

Published: 5/23/2019 3:33:56 PM

A trio of bills to tighten restrictions on firearms in New Hampshire passed the Senate on Thursday, in a series of 13-10 party-line votes that bring the bills closer to the governor.

Over hours of debate, senators took up legislation to strengthen background checks, impose waiting periods and allow schools to ban guns.

One bill, House Bill 109, would tighten up background checks by requiring them for all firearms transfers between sellers, dealers and buyers – closing what supporters said was a loophole that allows buyers to buy from dealers without background checks. Another bill, House Bill 514, seeks to institute a three-day waiting period for firearms purchases to prevent impulsive purchases for suicide.

A third, House Bill 564, would give individual school districts the power to impose firearm prohibitions on school grounds – a revival of legislation submitted last ye ar in the wake of a February school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The votes brought out familiar arguments, with Democrats arguing they were limited measures to provide safety and oversight, and Republicans saying they were overzealous and ineffective.

Making an argument for tightening background checks, Sen. Martha Hennessey said requiring background checks for transfers between sellers and dealers would close a loophole where dealers can sell to people before background checks are cleared. “This loophole has allowed individuals to target an African American church and kill nine innocent victims,” the Hanover Democrat said, referring to a 2015 mass shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter in that case, Dylan Roof, was not caught by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System after an administrative error, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But Londonderry Republican Sen. Sharon Carson and others questioned whether the bill was necessary. “Can anyone speak to incidents here in New Hampshire?” Carson said. “Can anyone talk about incidents that happen with guns here in New Hampshire?”

Carson and others said the state has low crime levels and doesn’t need tweaks to gun laws. Critics Thursday also raised concerns that the new requirements could require background checks for people interested in borrowing firearms during training sessions, a situation that proponents said would fall under the bill’s exceptions.

Sen. Melanie Levesque, a Brookline Democrat, argued that the bill was intended solely to ensure that background checks were filled out.

“I do support the ability to own guns,” she said. “There is a time and a place. As far as background checks, we do have background checks, now; this is just trying to close a loophole.”

At times, lawmakers pulled in personal anecdotes. Sen. David Starr mentioned bears frequently intruding on his property in Franconia; Sen. Regina Birdsell recounted an incident with her dog in which she encountered coyotes. Both said the situations underscored the need to be able to obtain firearms without long waits.

“What this bill would do is not only would I go through feasibly a background check when I purchase a gun, but when I learn to use my gun I could feasible have to go through another background check, Birdsell said. “I say no.”

Others had different anecdotes. Speaking in favor of a three-day wait period for firearm purchases, Sen Martha Hennessey referenced parents of children who had died by suicide, many of which she said involved guns. Having a mandatory waiting period could allow a cooling off period, she said.

“If there had been a waiting period they believe their child would still be alive,” she said. “Suicide is an impulsive act much of the time… If somebody is one the cusp of suicide to begin with, it can take one act.”

The third bill, SB 564, would allow school districts to individually adopt policies to prevent people from “knowingly possessing a firearm on public school property” a version of “gun-free school zones” present in other states. That bill brought out what have become regular audience members for certain gun bills in recent years: high school students.

Jacob Marcus, a Concord High senior, said in day to day school life, mass shooters are never far from his mind. The school has three lockdown drills a year; one last year was not advertised in advance, creating panic on the day.

“Every time we have a lockdown procedure it comes up,” he said. “And every time it comes up, everyone gets very silent, everyone gets very serious, and it’s a very somber time. Because we all know what could happen and what has happened.”

Were they allowed, “many of” the Concord school board members would be open to instituting the restrictions, Marcus argued, adding he would support the measure too.

Republicans, though, said it was feel-good legislation that would not deter a mass-shooter acting with intention. Carson said it was reactionary and would make schools less safe.

“Don’t we as adults have the responsibility to speak to these chidlren about gun safety and to not be afraid if they see someone who has a gun?” Carson said. “Do we want to traumatize these kids? Because to me it seems that’s what’s happening. We’re making them afraid of a gun.”

The amended bills will now head over to the House for final approval. If the House concurs, they’ll head to Gov. Chris Sununu, who has expressed skepticism on additional gun legislation.

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