NH gun rights leaders feud over who should manage background checks

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee took more than four hours of testimony Wednesday on a bill to get the state out of the business of managing the background checks done on those who try to purchase handguns at state gun stores. A Senate-passed bill would let the federal, National Information Criminal Background Check System (NICS) manage these checks in New Hampshire

CONCORD — Leaders in New Hampshire’s gun owner movement sharply disagreed Wednesday over whether eliminating a state “Gun Line” background check for gun buyers would be more efficient or cede control to an “anti-gun” administration in Washington.

The state’s powerful coalition of Second Amendment groups typically lobby in unison for or against changes in firearm laws. That’s what made a public hearing Wednesday so unusual.

Over four hours, the allies faced off against one another over a Senate-passed bill (SB 141) that would get the state out of the business of supervising background checks of anyone seeking to buy a handgun.

“We need to get rid of a system that is costing taxpayers extra dollars, that duplicates the FBI NICS system, is unnecessary and has failed at times, resulting in injuries to law enforcement officers and to others,” said state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, who authored the bill.

The New Hampshire State Police “Gun Line” has managed this job in New Hampshire since 1998, after the federal Brady Act mandated background checks nationwide of handguns bought at firearm stores.

Under the proposed bill, the FBI would handle the checks on all handgun purchases here through the National Information Criminal Background System (NICS).

Currently, 36 states defer these checks to the feds, including all New England states except New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Returning seized guns

The bill would put county sheriffs in charge of returning guns to people who had them taken away for court-issued domestic violence or stalking orders.

Giuda said gun owners have waited “a year or more” to get weapons back after a seizure order has expired or the defendant has been cleared.

The Senate passed the change in March, 14-10, with all Republicans backing it. The change was supported by the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners of America, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, a founder of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, said state Gun Line operations have been enhanced, perhaps in response to this bill.

“The Gun Line is no longer broke. The problems have been virtually fixed. There is always room for improvement,” Wheeler said.

Letting Washington process these background checks could erode gun owner rights as congressional calls grow for more gun control laws, Wheeler warned.

“The climate in Washington has never been more anti-gun than it is today,” he said. “Would you rather have the Biden administration in charge of the Gun Line or someone at the state level in charge of the Gun Line?”

Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn took no position on the bill.

Addressing NH delays

Quinn said the Gun Line went through a rocky period in 2019-20, when the agency couldn’t keep up with a flood of gun purchase requests and fallout from COVID-19.

In 2020, the number of gun purchase applications in New Hampshire went up 63%, while Quinn’s staff was depleted by COVID-19.

“It was essentially a perfect storm,” he said.

Since last December, State Police Lt. Michael McQuade, head of the permits and licensing unit, has beefed up staff, “reduced the scope” of background checks and upgraded its phone system to speed up processing, Quinn said.

“Some of these delays were unacceptable,” Quinn said. “We have been able to keep these backlogs down. I think they are in a good position now.”

Quinn said those working on Gun Line applications do more to follow up on a gun purchaser than the federal NICS system routinely does.

“We are doing above and beyond some steps that they do,” he said. “We do more than the FBI.”

Alan Rice of Bedford, state director of Gun Owners of America, said issues with the state Gun Line have been fixed before, only for delays to return.

“This is not a new problem. This has been going on for more than 20 years. It has never been instant in New Hampshire. Never, never, ever,” he said.

Pamela Keilig, with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said federal checks contain gaps that are picked up in the New Hampshire Gun Line.

This would allow on average “50 to 70 people” at any one time to have a gun who shouldn’t because they fell through the cracks, she said. “We are gambling with the lives of victims.”

Legal experts disagree

Sean List, a lawyer representing gun dealers, said the Department of Safety has expanded the Gun Line’s reach far beyond what was spelled out in state law or agency rule.

“We are allowing the Second Amendment rights of our residents to be denied at state bureaucratic whim,” he said.

Penny Dean of Concord, a prominent gun rights lawyer, said this law would lead to more lawsuits and delays because the federal NICS system is more complicated than the state Gun Line.

“This bill is poorly drafted and exhibits in every shape or form a fundamental misunderstanding of how background checks work,” Dean said. “If this bill passes, I am going to make multiples of the money that I make now.”

The bill would award each of the 10 county sheriffs $10,000 to train workers and obtain the computer hardware and software to process the return of guns to an average 500 owners across the state each year.

It would delay this change for six months to complete the setup for sheriffs and wind down the state’s Gun Line.

Later Wednesday, the gun rights movement fell back into line as all their activists supported the aim of another Senate-passed bill (SB 154) to prevent the state from enforcing any new executive order from President Joe Biden limiting Second Amendment rights.

Earlier this month, the House approved four other pro-gun bills, including a repeal of local ordinances (HB 307) such as firearms bans on college campuses as well as bills to keep anyone from being charged with either reckless conduct (HB 195) or criminal trespassing (HB 196) because they were displaying a gun in public.