Gun-rights groups and victim advocates rarely find themselves on the same side of legislative policy debates. But a bill to protect elders and other vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect or exploitation sparked opposition from members of both groups, for markedly different reasons.

Their combined pressure led Gov. Chris Sununu to veto it.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, sponsored House Bill 696, which would enable elders and other vulnerable adults, their guardians or attorneys to seek protective orders similar to those available to domestic violence and stalking victims.

“I’ve been more heartbroken over this veto, over what’s happened with this bill, than just about any other legislation I’ve been involved in,” Cushing said.

That’s because while advocacy groups such as the Alzheimer’s Association, AARP and New Hampshire Legal Assistance pushed for the bill, the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence (NHCADSV) at the last minute joined gun-rights activists in lobbying Sununu to veto it. And that, Cushing said, “was just devastating.”

Sununu vetoed House Bill 696 on July 19. Last Friday, he vetoed three gun-control measures that have been more traditionally aligned, with gun-rights advocates pushing for him to veto them, and human services advocates and other activists urging the governor to allow at least one of them to become law.

House Bill 696 started out with bipartisan support, with co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate. It sailed through the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, which unanimously voted it “ought to pass” last February.

That’s when some gun-rights organizations, including NRA affiliate Gun Owners of New Hampshire and New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, began mobilizing their members against House Bill 696, including it in a group of four “gun grab” bills to be opposed. At issue was language allowing the court, in granting a protective order, to order defendants to relinquish all firearms and ammunition “for the duration of the protective order.”

JR Hoell from the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, a former state representative, said House Bill 696 violates Fourth Amendment rights to due process.

“This bill started out as an outright gun grab and got watered down but still left some of the most onerous sections in,” Hoell said. “There are some really serious unintended consequences.”

Supporters of the bill are frustrated at how it has been characterized. “The absurdity was this was somehow a gun-grabbing bill trying to masquerade as a bill to protect elderly people,” Cushing said.

Cheryl Steinberg, director of the Senior Law Project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA), has worked on elder exploitation cases for 10 years and helped draft House Bill 696.

“What frustrates me is that this has become so political, and it never was,” she said. “We just want to help vulnerable adults be protected from abuse, neglect and exploitation. That’s what this is about.

“Now this bill has been killed, and these people have no protection,” she said. “For all the wrong reasons.”

Differing versions

Different versions of House Bill 696 made it through the House and Senate, with support from most Democrats — and solid opposition from all but a handful of House Republicans. When a committee of conference took it up in June, lawmakers agreed to remove the gun-confiscation language to save the bill. But the battle wasn’t over.

Jessica Eskeland, public policy specialist at NHCADSV, said her organization agreed with the goal of the legislation but not the final version. Advocates were concerned that domestic violence victims, the vast majority of whom represent themselves when seeking protective orders, could mistakenly get the wrong kind of order, she said.

And because the new elder abuse protective order would not allow for immediate confiscation of firearms, as the domestic violence and stalking orders do, that mistake could be deadly, she said.

“If one person got the wrong form, didn’t have the protections they need, and was hurt as a result, that just wasn’t a risk we were willing to remain silent on,” Eskeland said.

But Eskeland said she has an easy fix: add language to make it clear that domestic violence and stalking victims should not seek protection under the new statute.

Cushing included the coalition’s proposed language in an amendment to HB 696, but the conference committee rejected it. That’s when the coalition asked the governor to veto it.

Meanwhile, while some gun-rights groups were mollified by removal of the firearms language, others, notably the  New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, continued to oppose the bill. That’s because of a section that mirrors language in the state’s domestic violence laws that authorizes a police officer who has probable cause to believe someone has been abused to “use all means within reason to prevent further abuse.” It specifically allows confiscating any deadly weapons involved in the alleged abuse, exploitation or neglect.

That section, Hoell said, is as problematic as the firearms language that was removed.

Mandate

“It mandates that upon a mere accusation, that the peace officer in this case take all deadly weapons,” he said. And there’s no process outlined for how someone would get their firearms back, he said.

If someone is using a deadly weapon to threaten or abuse someone, that’s already a crime and should be prosecuted under criminal laws, Hoell said. “We don’t need this statute,” he said.

“The whole purpose of this bill was to address financial exploitation and you know what? That probably should have been done,” he said. “But, this wasn’t the bill to do it.”

Steinberg agreed that criminal laws protect victims after something has happened. But she said, “We wanted a vehicle for people to be able to go to court to try to stop the abuse or exploitation from happening, or further happening.”

Sununu vetoed House Bill 696 on July 19. His two-page veto message focused almost entirely on issues raised by the coalition, including that domestic violence victims may mistakenly obtain the wrong protective order, putting themselves and their children “at grave risk.”

The governor also mentioned “the real possibility that an individual’s Second Amendment constitutional rights could be violated without judicial oversight.” And, he said, “Other advocates have raised legitimate concerns regarding Fourth Amendment considerations.”

Susan Olsen is director of legislation for the Women’s Defense League and a volunteer firearms instructor. She said she was “thrilled” when the gun-confiscation language was removed from House Bill 696 in conference committee — and “shocked” when Sununu vetoed it.

What killed the bill? “Pressure,” Olsen said. “And bad advice.”

The intent of House Bill 696 was good, but the original language was “horrible,” she said. But after she met Steinberg at a hearing on another gun-related bill, they ended up working together to try to improve the elder abuse bill. “She understood my concerns and I understood hers, and we fought side by side,” Olsen said.

Olsen said she was surprised to see other gun-rights advocates continue to fight the measure when they should have been happy with the changes made.

“What got lost in all this … is that all of a sudden there’s a protective order available in the state of New Hampshire that doesn’t focus on guns,” she said. “It focuses on helping people.”

Avoiding confusion

As for the coalition’s concerns that victims could be confused about which protective order to seek, she said, “I find that insulting.”

And NHLA’s Steinberg said any confusion could be overcome by printing information about the different types of relief available directly on the forms, or handing out pamphlets explaining which protective orders might be most appropriate in a given case.

What happened to House Bill 696 “has been a real puzzler to me,” Olsen said. “The opposition, the last-minute hoopla, and all of the backroom deals that were going on; it’s disheartening, actually.”

Asked how it felt to have ended up “strange bedfellows” with some gun-rights groups, NHCADSV’s Eskeland said, “Honestly, I don’t consider us being on the same side.”

“I think that their arguments and objections to the bill are different than ours,” she said. “Even when they both center around firearms to an extent, their concerns and problems with this are very different than ours.”

The coalition’s objections are “more nuanced,” she said. “It’s about ensuring that the correct people have the correct protections that they need that are appropriate to keep everyone safe.”

Hoell also rejects the suggestion that NHFC and NHCADSV were on the same side.

“We don’t talk to them,” he said. “We don’t like their views on the Second Amendment. We think they wanted the bill to be a gun grab and when it got stripped of that, they no longer supported it.”

Last week nearly 200 gun-control advocates packed the Legislative Office Building to call on Sununu not to veto the three other bills that would expand criminal background checks, impose a three-day waiting period and create a state-enforced gun-free zone around school property.

Sununu said in his veto measure Friday about all three bills that current gun laws were “well-crafted” and that the state had done many things to prevent gun violence including beefing up school safety grants, creating a civil rights unit in the Department of Justice and forming a diversity commission that took public comment across the state.

The governor also said the state’s Second Amendment protection for gun owners went beyond the federal Constitution.

The fight got more bitter last week with Second Amendment advocates insisting Democratic legislative leaders in New Hampshire deliberately held onto the bills until after the two latest mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last week.

Legislative leaders call those claims “preposterous” and insisted the three bills simply limped through the bill-drafting process to all reach Sununu’s desk at the same time last Wednesday.

Evan Nappen, a Concord attorney, literally wrote the book on firearm laws here; he’s the author of “New Hampshire Gun Law,” and a self-described “very aggressive defender of the Second Amendment and gun rights.”

But, he said, “If there is a law that focuses on bad behavior and not an inanimate object, then I don’t have a problem with it.”

And that’s what the final version of House Bill 696 does, Nappen said. There are already laws that allow seizure of evidence, he said, so he sees no problem with allowing police to confiscate deadly weapons if there’s probable cause to believe they were used in an elder abuse case.

Many victims of elder abuse don’t qualify for domestic violence protective orders, Nappen said. “So why are we saying another tool to protect a victim is no good?” he asked.

In his veto message, Sununu praised the “many and diverse stakeholders” who had worked on House Bill 696 and pledged to work with them next year “to craft a bill that accomplishes the goal of protecting vulnerable adults that does not carry unintended consequences.”

For now, Cushing said, he’s focused on convincing enough Republican lawmakers to override Sununu’s veto. If he can’t, he said, he’ll bring the measure back in the next session.

“I think because this is the right thing to do, that eventually we’ll prevail,” he said. “The righteousness of what we’re doing will overcome the crass politics that have so far prevented it from becoming policy.”