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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Gun rights groups taking aim at SB 244

State House Bureau

February 22. 2014 11:57PM

The shooting has already begun between gun rights groups squaring off over Senate Bill 244.

As originally proposed, the bill, sponsored by Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, and Rep. Jeff Goley, D-Manchester, would require people with court-determined mental illness to be added to the federal list of people prohibited from purchasing guns.

But at a public hearing in January, advocates for the disabled and the mentally ill argued they were being targeted when the focus should be on how dangerous a person is.

That section of the bill is gone, but two provisions remain: one to establish a commission to study the relationship between mental health and firearms, and another that had several gun rights groups backing the original bill - a path to annul a person's mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Currently, there is no way for someone in New Hampshire on the federal prohibition list to have his or her name removed after being cured of a mental illness.

Gun and ammunition manufacturers and distributors, along with Pro-Gun New Hampshire, backed the bill because of the provision establishing a process for getting a name removed.

Former Senate Majority Leader and Pro-Gun New Hampshire President Bob Clegg took issue with an email Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, sent to the organization's members regarding the bill. The email was sent as an open letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, who worked out the SB 244 compromise.

Pratt attacked the bill as though it still contained the mental health reporting provisions and questioned the adequacy of the annulment process, which in the compromise would track the state's procedure for annulling felony records.

Pratt said, "If you want to create a remedy which is more than a sham, the state should pay all legal fees and psychiatric evaluations."

In a subsequent email, Pratt said passing the bill would only encourage greater restrictions in the future and allow anti-gun rights activists to keep the issue in play.

Clegg said local pro-gun groups are being told to shut up so national groups such as Pratt's can continue to raise money.

Pratt is not telling the truth about the amendment, which he has seen, Clegg said. "GOA comes out and says the bill does things it doesn't do," he said.

He said the bill would grant people the right to annul a record to retain their gun rights, something they do not have now. "Why is this so bad?" Clegg asked.

He noted some people have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to have their names removed from the federal prohibited list, only to be told by a judge that such removal can't be done in New Hampshire.

During the public hearing on the bill, James Bryant of Enfield said the provision would finally allow him to regain his guns, which he lost when he had a mental breakdown. He has since recovered and has the support of his counselors in regaining his gun rights.

"(The path) comes to a dead end in the middle of the night," Bryant told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I'm just looking for a path to redemption."

He told the committee he paid an attorney $13,000 to go through the court process, which ended with a judge telling him his request could not be granted under New Hampshire law. His attorney told Bryant he could appeal the superior court decision, but that would cost about $20,000, he said.

Clegg said Bryant's experience shows why the state needs SB 244.

He also noted the bill would set up a commission composed of interested parties who would be able to sit at the table and say how best to fix the system, he added.

Among the groups who would be represented on the commission are the commissioners of the safety and health and human services; a member of the judiciary; representatives from the Disability Rights Center, the N.H. Psychiatric Society, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)-New Hampshire, the NH Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, the N.H. Firearms Coalition, Gun Owners of N.H., Pro-Gun N.H., the Second Amendment Sisters-N.H., the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police; and two members of the public.

"Gun dealers in New Hampshire are still liable if they sell to someone who has a problem," Clegg said, and that needs to be addressed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to vote on the amendment proposed by Carson.

That vote will have to come soon because the Senate has to act on the bill by March 27.

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Drones: Not to drone on, but a key House committee last week approved a revised plan from one of the Legislature's leading privacy advocates, Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, that would curtail drone activity, particularly by state, local or federal agencies.

Under the latest version of House Bill 1620, agencies would first need to obtain a search warrant if a drone was to be used to gather evidence; would have to report the evidence obtained to the attorney general; and would have to limit the drone's use to a two-day period. Any evidence obtained through the use of a drone not directly related to the warrant would have to be destroyed.

Kurk introduced a bill last year that would have banned drones from taking pictures of people's homes, but the bill drew adamant opposition from the N.H. Association of Broadcasters and the N.H. Civil Liberties Union, both claiming it would violate First Amendment rights.

Kurk has repeatedly said the intent of his bill was not to stop private drone enthusiasts from using them in public places and unintentionally photographing a person, but rather to forbid surveillance or monitoring an individual or group.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted, 12-5, in support of Kurk's revised bill, but urged him to continue working to gain greater support.

The House will vote on the bill by the end of March.

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Grow Your Own: Despite a near-certain veto by Gov. Maggie Hassan, the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee voted, 13-3, to approve a bill that would allow patients who qualify for the state's new medical marijuana program or their caregivers to grow their own medicine.

When the House approved a medical marijuana program last year, it included a provision allowing patients to grow their own marijuana or cannabis. Supporters said it would be cheaper and would allow immediate relief for patients instead of making them wait at least two years until a dispensary system was established.

When the bill went to the Senate, Hassan, who had supported medical marijuana as a state senator, told key senators she would veto the bill if the home-grow provision remained in the bill.

The Senate bowed to her request and the House eventually gave in, wanting a medical marijuana program of some kind.

This year, Rep. Donald "Ted" Wright, R-Tuftonboro, one of the sponsors of last year's bill, proposed House Bill 1622 to allow patients who cannot wait for the alternative treatment centers to grow their own marijuana.

Patients or their caregivers would be able to possess up to two mature plants and 12 seedlings. The plants' location would be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Patients would lose their right to grow their own when an alternative treatment center opened within 30 miles of where they lived.

"Patients and caregivers in Vermont and Maine have been cultivating their own marijuana legally for years with little controversy," said Matt Simon of Goffstown, who is political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The House has consistently supported patients who urgently need medical marijuana to treat their conditions, and in light of this excellent committee vote, we fully expect a strong House vote in favor of HB 1622."

Without the bill, patients will not have access to marijuana until the summer of 2015 at the earliest, Simon noted.

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Abortion Clinics: While much of the attention last week was on Senate Bill 319, which passed on a 15-9 vote, setting up a 25-foot buffer zone around the entrances to abortion clinics, abortion foes took one on the chin in the House, as well.

House Bill 1501 would have required abortion clinics to be licensed by the state Health and Human Services Department.

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted, 17-0, Thursday to kill the bill.

Bill opponents said it would have made abortion services more difficult to offer and access.

The bill was the work of the Americans United for Life (AUL) and was a legislative priority for pro-life groups, such as N.H. Right-to-Life and Cornerstone Action.

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