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Senate committee hears hours of testimony on ‘red flag’ protective order law

Monitor staff
Published: 6/24/2020 5:44:35 PM

Robin Skudlarek didn’t fully know the gravity of New Hampshire’s suicide crisis until it almost took a member of her family.

Fifteen years ago, the Londonderry resident’s relative shot himself. He survived, but only after weeks of care.

The family took intermittent trips to the hospital. They cleaned his apartment, sorted his belongings and wondered whether he would ever use them again. Skudlarek said she wrestled with one question: What could we have done?

“He was depressed, he was in a crisis, and he had a gun,” Skudlarek said in testimony to state senators Wednesday. “We knew he was suicidal. He had exhibited signs and symptoms, and we all knew he had a gun. He wasn’t my child. He was an adult. Where was I to go to stop what I feared in my heart might occur?”

Fifteen years later, New Hampshire lawmakers say they have an answer for that.

Near the end of the House and Senate voting sessions, Senate Democrats are preparing to send Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a new firearms proposal that covers extreme risk protective orders.

The proposal, known as a “red flag law,” would create a tool for family members and others close to someone to petition a court to remove guns and firearms from an individual who might attempt self-harm – for up to a year.

Democrats say it’s a crucial tool in a state where gun crimes remain relatively low but suicides are rapidly increasing.

But gun rights advocates argue it’s an overcorrection that would deprive citizens of firearms without due process or thorough evidence.

On Wednesday, six days before the end of the legislative calendar, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard hours of testimony from both sides.

The bill, House Bill 687, would allow family members or members of the same household to apply for protective orders against a person who “poses a significant risk of causing bodily injury to himself or herself or others.”

That order, if granted, would require the person to temporarily relinquish all firearms, ammunition and firearm licenses, and restrict them from buying more ammunition. The order would require a written affidavit detailing the allegations, as well as a list of the firearms believed to be in the respondent’s possession. If necessary, the order authorizes a police warrant to search and seize firearms in the respondent’s possession.

The relief could be sought in the state circuit court in the county where either person lives, the petitioner or the respondent.

Under the proposed law, when receiving a request for an order, the state circuit court must hold an “ex parte” hearing – one involving just the petitioner and not the respondent – that day or the next business day. There, the court will determine on the preponderance of the evidence whether there is “immediate and significant risk” to justify granting the order.

If approved by the court, extreme risk protection orders must be hand-delivered to the respondent, either by the person filing them or a police officer. At that point, a hearing would be mandated within seven days of the petition being filed. The outcome of that hearing would decide whether a longer-term protective order is issued – up to 12 months.

Those who could apply for the order include spouses of the respondent, ex-spouses, parents, roommates, housemates, cohabitants, and those currently or previously in romantic relationships. The list also includes anyone who shared a household with that person “in the preceding 24 months.”

The applicant does not need an attorney to apply, the bill specifies. And in certain situations determined by the court, the location of the person complaining can be withheld.

But the orders wouldn’t apply to cases of domestic abuse or stalking. Those situations are already covered in New Hampshire law by protective orders that can restrict firearms.

Meanwhile, anyone falsifying reports would be subject to criminal penalties, according to the bill.

The legislation, which passed the House 201-176, largely along party lines, has been hailed by supporters as a balanced approach that’s delivered success in other states – particularly around suicide rates.

Ken Norton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Hampshire, praised the bill as a means to stop what has become a public health crisis of suicide in New Hampshire. The Granite State has seen 1,240 suicide deaths in five years; 549 involved a firearm, Norton said.

Rep. Jerry Knirk, a physician and co-sponsor of the bill, called it “a public health approach to dealing with gun violence.”

But second amendment advocates argued that it would deprive gun owners of rights without easy recourse to defend against false claims.

Joe Hannon, vice president of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, said that the provisions were open to abuse. And he said that it could lead to tragedies on the part of law enforcement, pointing to a 2018 case in Ferndale, Md., where officers shot and killed Gary Willis, a Black man, at his home while trying to carry out an extreme risk protection order.

“This gives law enforcement the ability to do something like that to anybody,” he said, noting the nationwide movement in recent weeks to usher about police reform.

Kimberly Morin, a founding member of the Women’s Defense League, said that the bill created a process that allowed others to target gun owners with protective order requests.

“The Legislature is trying to pass a bill that is one of the more discriminatory pieces of legislation in decade,” she said.

Gov. Chris Sununu has not directly weighed in on the bill, but he has signaled skepticism with the concept of red flag laws in the past, citing due process concerns. In 2019, he vetoed a bill creating a vulnerable adults protective order, which gun rights supporters opposed.

HB 687 will be debated by the full Senate on Monday.

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