Senate holds lengthy, remote hearing on red flag bill

The state Senate Judiciary Committee held one of the longest remote hearings of the 2020 legislative session Wednesday over a red flag bill to permit a judge to temporarily confiscate the guns of someone deemed to be an "extreme risk."

CONCORD — Several dozen supporters and opponents squared off remotely Wednesday over red flag legislation that would permit the temporary confiscation of guns if a judge determines a person poses an “extreme risk” of violence to himself or others.

After a two-hour hearing, the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 3-2, in support of HB 687, which the House of Representatives approved in January. All three Democrats backed it. The two Republicans opposed it.

The full Senate is likely to pass the measure when it meets Monday.

Margaret Tilton, a retired physician from Exeter, said such a law would have permitted her family to take a gun away from her son, who suffered from depression and shot himself to death in 2017.

Before his death, Exeter police officials convinced him to turn over a gun he had bought earlier. He went back to a gun store and bought a second handgun, which he used to commit suicide, she said.

“The evidence was there. It was a repeated pattern of behavior,” Tilton told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“These should have been tripwires for a more robust response,” she said.

Political motive questioned

Former state senator and lobbyist Bob Clegg, speaking for Pro Gun New Hampshire, questioned whether the Senate was reviving this bill at the close of the 2020 legislative session to use as a political weapon in the upcoming election.

“They appear to be playing to a political base. The timing is very troubling to me,” Clegg said. “What is happening is fear is pushing the need to confiscate the rights of people who disagree with a political party.”

Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed several gun control bills in 2019 and was likely to veto this one if it reaches his desk.

Supporters noted they have made changes to this proposal including a higher legal standard before a judge will approve temporary confiscation of a gun.

Committee Chairwoman Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said she believes this measure could reduce the state’s high suicide rate.

From 1999 to 2016, suicides in New Hampshire went up 48%, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“This bill creates a pathway for concerned family members and law enforcement to request assistance from our courts in protecting someone who may be a danger to themselves and others,” Hennessey said.

“The due process incorporated in the bill’s language makes it clear that this is not a criminal proceeding aimed at taking away firearms from lawful owners,” she said.

‘Not a panacea’

Suicide rates in Connecticut and Indiana went down after those states adopted so-called red flag laws.

“It is not a panacea, but the problem of gun violence here is too complex for any single cure-all,” said Tracy Hahn-Burkett of Bow, with the liberal Kent Street Coalition.

Lauren LePage, a regional lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the bill fails to require a mental health evaluation or treatment for anyone who temporarily loses his or her guns.

“This undermines the public safety justification for it,” LePage said.

Zandra Rice-Hawkins with Granite State Progress said the bill does allow a judge to order a mental health evaluation.

Shirley Dawson of Atkinson, a domestic abuse survivor, said she fears losing her weapons.

“If you take my guns away from me, I have no ability to protect myself if I am attacked,” Dawson said.