What's the difference between a loaded handgun and an unloaded semi-automatic pistol that can be armed with multiple rounds of ammunition and ready to fire in seconds?
From a public safety perspective, there's no difference. Yet the state Supreme Court recently ruled that it's legal for New Hampshire residents to carry a concealed, unloaded handgun, along with a ready-to-load ammunition magazine, without a valid concealed carry weapon license. To understand the full ramification of the court's decision, it's important to know that any New Hampshire adult can buy a handgun from a friend, family member or private seller on the Internet, without ever having to pass a standard criminal and mental health background check.
State law currently permits unlicensed firearm owners to transport handguns stored in a bag, backpack, coat pocket or motor vehicle, as long as there are no bullets in the gun's chamber or magazine well (RSA 159.4).
This is a commonsense law that's been on the books for many decades and strikes a good balance between respecting the rights of responsible gun owners and promoting public safety. Law-abiding New Hampshire citizens who aspire to carry loaded firearms in public have the right to carry guns openly, or may easily obtain a concealed carry weapon license — fees are minimal, there is no proficiency test, and local authorities are required to approve every applicant who passes a routine background check. But as the new court ruling reveals, a serious loophole in the state's concealed carry law gives unlicensed individuals the legal right to carry a concealed handgun that may be technically unloaded, but functionally ready to fire.
In other words, the state of New Hampshire allows a person who may never have passed a criminal or mental health background check to bring a concealed, ready-to-fire semi-automatic handgun — with multiple rounds of ammunition close at hand — into your community.
Before you decide to stay home and barricade the doors, let's take a deep breath and remember that even though it's impossible to know exactly how many people in the Granite State own firearms — or what kind of guns and how many each individual owns — independent surveys consistently show that non-gun owners outnumber gun owners in New Hampshire around 2-to-1. The Guns & Ammo web- site, which in 2013 ranked New Hampshire among the top 10 states for gun owners, puts the state's personal gun ownership rate at 30 percent.
Furthermore, any qualified demographer looking at the characteristics of the state's population — such as income, median age, unemployment rate, educational attainment, civic engagement, and population density — would correctly predict that New Hampshire is a low-crime, low-gun-violence state. In fact, New Hampshire rates as one of the most crime-free states in the nation, year after year.
But living in an exceptionally safe state is not a valid reason to tolerate weak gun laws that allow the unchecked migration of unregulated private guns into public life. Regardless of the character and intention of the person who pulls the trigger, pistols and revolvers are specifically designed to kill people — and newer semi-automatic models have military-style features that make these popular weapons more deadly.
Fortunately, there's an easy fix for New Hampshire's concealed carry loophole. Good examples are already in effect in other states — such laws requiring unlicensed gun owners to carry unloaded firearms and ammunition in separate, completely sealed cases or compartments or locked in the trunk of a car. Our legislators should put public safety first in 2014 by making it a priority to pass legislation to close the criminal-friendly gap in New Hampshire's concealed carry weapon law.
Judy Stadtman of Portsmouth is the co-founder of Project for Safer Communities New Hampshire, a locally-grown grassroots action initiative supporting gun violence prevention.