Varied Coalition Targets Gun Bill

State Sen. David Watters listens as people speak against his bill Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014 at the  Statehouse in Concord, N.H. Watters’ bill would require the state to report the names of the mentally ill to the FBI to be included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

State Sen. David Watters listens as people speak against his bill Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014 at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. Watters’ bill would require the state to report the names of the mentally ill to the FBI to be included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Concord — A bill prohibiting gun sales to people judged mentally incompetent by a court is in for a tough fight at the State House if Tuesday’s three-hour public hearing is any indication.

While state law enforcement officials and some gun rights groups backed the proposal, they were outnumbered by opponents, which included mental health advocates, liberty rights activists and some of the state’s other gun groups.

“I’m certainly sympathetic with the attempt to prevent gun violence, but my concern is that the way the bill is written is that it does not in fact make us safer,” Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Instead, Chaffee said, the bill would perpetuate stereotypes about people with mental illness being more prone to violence.

“There is no proven connection between those found incompetent to stand trial or having a (court-ordered) guardian and any likelihood to be violent,” she said.

Several opponents alleged the bill would target even people who occasionally saw a mental health counselor; Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said that was false. And a few saw the bill as a governmental effort to disarm citizens.

“Adolf Hitler started with bills like this for gun confiscation,” said David Love, of Derry.

Federal law prohibits anyone “adjudicated mentally defective” from buying a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer, which includes gun shops. But the federal government does not require states to make the relevant mental health records available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. New Hampshire is one of 17 states that does not provide those records to the system, said Earl Sweeney, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Safety.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, and Rep. Jeff Goley, a Manchester Democrat, would change that. Watters called his proposal “a common sense approach” to reducing gun violence.

Under an amended version of the bill he submitted Tuesday, four groups of people would be prohibited from purchasing guns from a federally licensed gun dealer in New Hampshire:

∎ Those found incompetent to stand trial due to a mental disease or developmental or intellectual disability.

∎ People found not guilty of a criminal offense by reason of insanity unless the criminal record had been annulled.

∎ Anyone appointed a guardian because a developmental disability had left them unable to care for themselves, their property or finances.

∎ People involuntarily committed to a mental health facility after a court hearing, in a nonemergency situation.

The amended version Watters offered Tuesday at the request of Pro-Gun New Hampshire would allow anyone prevented from buying a gun for the above reasons to have their mental health record annulled once they were well. Attorney Evan Nappen of Pro-Gun New Hampshire said the annulment provision is important, because New Hampshire currently offers people no chance to erase a past mental health finding.

Goley said the National Rifle Association is not opposing the bill. But the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition and Gun Owners of New Hampshire are. After the hearing, Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican and leader of New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, challenged statements by Goley and Watters that they supported gun rights. He considered it important that both earned a “C” from the NRA in 2012 and lower grades from in-state gun groups.

Michael Skibbie, policy director for the Disabilities Rights Center, said the bill unfairly prohibited all people found incompetent to stand trial from buying a gun. That finding could be given to someone charged with shoplifting or another nonviolent crime, he said. He also considered the guardianship category overly broad given that someone needs only to be unable to manage their finances or property to be appointed a guardian.

Jenn Coffey, of Andover, blasted the bill as the national director of legislative affairs for Second Amendment Sisters. She, like others, insisted the bill would target police officers, veterans, firefighters and anyone else who seeks mental health help in a crisis. Rice and Alexander De Nesnera, associate medical director of the state hospital, said that was inaccurate.

The bill would not include people brought to a hospital against their will during a crisis unless a court held a hearing and determined the person needed to remain hospitalized, said De Nesnera.

Ken Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, urged the senators to find a compromise and turn the bill over to a study committee. He suggested a better approach would be to prohibit dangerous people from buying guns rather than focusing on people with mental illness.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is accepting testimony on the bill until Friday; comments can be emailed to sharon.carson@leg.state.nh.us.