Bipartisan pair of NH lawmakers want to tighten background checks on gun purchases

By ANNMARIE TIMMINS

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 12-07-2023 1:58 AM

Two of the House’s most ardent gun legislation advocates – a Republican who’s fought for gun rights and a Democrat who has advocated for gun control — are partnering on a bill that would add certain mental health records to background checks for firearm purchases. 

Federal law prohibits anyone who has been adjudicated mentally ill or committed to a psychiatric hospital from buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer or possessing a firearm.

But there’s a loophole in New Hampshire because it is among about a dozen states that do not require that those mental health records be submitted to the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System for gun purchases.

Similar legislation that would have closed that gap failed several years ago. This bill’s bipartisan sponsorship increases its chances of passing, as does the House Rules Committee’s 9-0 vote Tuesday to allow the legislation to be submitted after the House’s September filing deadline.

Reps. Terry Roy, a Deerfield Republican, and David Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat, have been on opposite sides of firearms legislation in the past. 

They told the committee their joint effort on this bill is a response to the Nov. 17 fatal shooting of New Hampshire Hospital security officer Bradley Haas by John Madore, who was subject to at least one involuntary emergency admission to the psychiatric hospital following a 2016 arrest on assault and reckless conduct charges, according to court records. 

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Madore, 33, was shot and killed by a state trooper on duty at the hospital.

“I like to consider myself one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment,” Roy told the House Rules Committee Tuesday, sitting beside Meuse. “For us to be together here today tells you something – that we think that this is serious, and we think it needs to be addressed now.” 

Roy and Meuse told the committee that while their bill has not been drafted, it must have a mechanism that allows people who’ve been denied a gun purchase due to an involuntary emergency admission to retain their rights to purchase and own firearms in the future. 

Without it, they said they are concerned the bill would perpetuate the stigmatizing narrative that people with mental illness cannot get well. 

“I don’t think anybody wants a firearm in the hands of somebody who is subject to things like acts of psychosis and who is literally not in control of themselves. And I think that’s the thing that we are really trying to stop,” Meuse said. “But one of the things that we want to make sure of is … there’s a way to reverse this process when people get better.”

Roy said he’s mindful of veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder and could hesitate to seek treatment without that option. “I would want to do nothing that would discourage them from getting the help they need,” he said. “Nor would I want to punish them with the greatest of tragic ironies by taking their rights away because they went to defend ours. So we’re going to be very diligent and very careful in crafting this legislation.”

Without an option to regain the right to have a gun, the legislation will face opposition from key stakeholders.

Susan Stearns, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire, said in an email Tuesday that in addition to a restoration of rights measure, her group would want the bill to set limits on who would be reported, such as only those subject to probate commitment as ordered by a judge. And, mental health reports would have to come from law enforcement or the court, not the psychiatric hospital treating the individual under an involuntary emergency admission, she said.  

Evan Nappen, one of the state’s most vocal gun rights attorneys, represented Madore following his 2016 arrest, when he barricaded himself in his bedroom with firearms and threatened to shoot the police, according to court records. 

Nappen declined to discuss Madore’s case. But he, like Stearns, said New Hampshire should submit civil commitment records but only if it also adopts a process that allows a person to demonstrate they are well. He noted that a person is still subject to federal charges if they should have been prohibited from buying a gun but were not stopped because the state had not submitted the necessary mental health records.

“There are certain folks in New Hampshire that believe in their pursuit of being pro-Second Amendment that anything you do at all that helps gun laws work is somehow bad,” Nappen said in an interview. “So they fight against these things. I’ll tell you what, no one has told me a logical, actual reason to oppose putting a prohibited person in a database or allowing a prohibited person in a database to get their rights restored.”

Despite New Hampshire not being required to submit court-ordered mental health hospitalizations to the federal database, entities in the state have submitted about 650 mental health records to the database, according to 2022 reporting from USA Today. It is unclear who submitted the records or what they contain, however. 

The state Department of Safety, which runs background checks for handguns, has declined multiple requests to make someone available for an interview to discuss how their background checks work. The FBI conducts background checks on rifles and other long gun purchases. Background checks are required only for purchases from a federally licensed gun dealer. They are not required for private sales.

It is unclear where Madore obtained the handgun and AR-style rifle he brought to the state hospital the day he killed Haas. The Strafford police confiscated the 9mm pistol and assault rifle he had during his 2016 arrest, according to court records. Those guns remain at the police department, according to the Attorney General’s Office. 

Meuse said getting the Rules Committee’s approval Tuesday to pursue the bill after the filing deadline was a first step. 

“There is a huge amount to unpack,” he said.

It remains unclear whether the legislation would require certain mental health records be submitted or simply allow them to be submitted. States have different policies.

The process for seeking restoration of rights has not been determined yet either. Meuse said among the questions will be how to handle a case where someone can demonstrate their wellness only if they take their medication.

“With the medication, they are stable and can lead a productive, happy life, but when they go off the medication, there can be a problem,” Meuse said. The balancing of safety measures and rights will be important, he said.

“One of the things we want to do with any legislation is acknowledge the fact that people can get better,” Meuse said. “On the other hand, we have a huge public safety gap we need to close.”