CONCORD — The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a “red flag” bill Wednesday that critics say is a “gun grab” and advocates said would save lives.
The House voted 201-176 to send the measure on to the state Senate, which is expected to embrace it. Both houses are controlled by Democrats.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu did not issue a veto threat but said there was no need for the measure.
“After voting it out of committee with no recommendation and retaining it last year, it is clear the Legislature cannot even come to a consensus on this bill — even 22 Democrats voted against it today,” Benjamin Vihstadt said in a statement. “Governor Sununu has long said New Hampshire’s Second Amendment laws are where they need to be and he’s not looking to make any changes.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had deadlocked, 10-10, over what to do with the bill, which would create a new class of so-called extreme risk protection orders.
“Red flag” laws, which permit a family member or law enforcement to petition a judge to order the temporary seizure of guns from someone feared to be a danger to themselves or others, are in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
“Unfortunately no state legislature has the power to unring the bell of gun violence or gun suicide, but what we can do is take sensitive steps to prevent that bell from being rung again, again and again in the future,” said Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth.
During debate, Meuse said New Hampshire averages 123 deaths by gun a year — 90 percent of which are suicides.
Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, read a letter from Margaret Tilton of Exeter, who sought more gun control after her son, George, 23, killed himself with a gun the day after Thanksgiving in 2017.
“‘We have a largely silent epidemic of depression and hopelessness among our young people in this state. Please have the courage to vote yes for this legislation,’” said Altschiller, reading Tilton’s words.
Rep. Kimberly Rice, R-Hudson, said HB 687 would take a gun from someone based only on an accusation. A judge could issue a temporary seizure order by telephone, denying the accused the right to argue against it, she said.
“This will turn due process upside down and have people found guilty, and then they have to prove their innocence. Please oppose this unconstitutional, gun-grabbing bill,” Rice said.
Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, said the measure doesn’t deliver mental health services to the person before the guns are taken away or address the seizure of other potentially harmful items, such as knives or drugs, he said.
“This is not going to help anybody; it is strictly for gun confiscation,” Burt said.
A leading supporter of the red-flag law is Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton, who expects Sununu will veto the measure if it gets that far.
Sununu vetoed four other gun control bills last year, which Republicans in the House and Senate were able to sustain.
“I’m pleased by the vote,” Cushing said, “but we’re going to have to vote on it again and next time we’re going to need about 267 votes (to override a veto) to win.”
Rep. Nancy Murphy, D-Merrimack, said her subcommittee spent the summer and fall fine-tuning the bill to make clear it can only apply in “extreme instances of crisis.” The bill makes it a misdemeanor for someone to knowingly make a false accusation.
“This bill is at its core a public safety measure,” Murphy said.
Among the groups supporting the bill were the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the New Hampshire Medical Society.
On hand Wednesday were volunteers for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group financed by billionaire businessman and Democratic presidential primary candidate Michael Bloomberg.
“It appears that Bloomberg’s puppets are busy at work in New Hampshire,” said J.R. Hoell, secretary of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, in a statement.
“Instead of fixing the issues that we have in New Hampshire, the House spent over 70 minutes discussing how to strip citizens of their property, more time than was spent on all of the other bills left over from 2019,” Hoell said.
A volunteer with the Moms group praised the House action.
“Family members are often the first to recognize when loved ones are in crisis, so it’s critical that they have a way to intervene,” said Deidre Reynolds.
The debate was long and emotional, the biggest excitement of the first day of the 2020 legislative session, as the two legislative chambers slogged through 230 bills left from 2019.
After less than three hours, the Senate finished the work on its 76 pending measures.
The House has scheduled sessions Thursday and on Jan. 16 if necessary to complete its agenda.