CONCORD — Dr. Margaret Tilton and her husband Rob are convinced that their son, George, would be alive today if New Hampshire had a red flag law in place in 2017.
That’s the year the Exeter couple lost their troubled teenage son to suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The 23-year-old had struggled with depression for years. “His behavior had escalated and sent up red flags and warning signs. The evidence was there,” said his father. “These should have been trip wires for a more robust response.”
“There can be no meaning to George’s senseless death unless we create that meaning,” he said. “All of us tried to do the best we could with the means available to us. We know there are better tools out there. We ask you to give us access to them.”
The better tools the couple alluded to would come in the form of a judge’s decree, known as an “extreme risk protection order,” that could have prevented a suicidal young man from purchasing a handgun.
The Exeter couple on Tuesday brought that appeal to a public hearing on a proposed “red flag” law for New Hampshire, House Bill 687.
The bill would allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily keep guns out of the hands of people in crisis when there is evidence that they pose a serious risk of harming themselves or others.
The hearing attracted a crowd of about 300, pro and con, to Representatives’ Hall on Tuesday. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense mounted a strong display of support in the face of equally strong opposition by gun rights groups and others who raised questions about the constitutionality of the proposal.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the N.H. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers raised concerns about the due process provisions in the legislation, while the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness testified in support.
“It is important to note that 90 percent of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide,” said Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI-NH.
“However, unlike almost every other method of suicide, use of a firearm in a suicide attempt is almost always lethal and leaves little opportunity for intervention. Toward that end, restricting access to lethal means — in this case firearms — is an important suicide prevention strategy.”
Deb Howard, a North Hampton volunteer for Moms Demand Action, submitted a petition with 663 signatures in support of the bill. “A common thread in mass shootings is that family members noticed dangerous behavior before the violence occurred,” she said.
Jeanne Hruska, political director for the ACLU-NH, said the organization is not taking a position on the bill, but has a number of concerns with how it is currently written that it hopes can be addressed in amendments.
The evidentiary standard that should be met for a temporary protection order should be raised from probable cause to preponderance of the evidence, she said, adding, “We’re also concerned about how the bill excludes the rules of evidence.”
Manchester Attorney Jaye L. Rancourt, speaking on behalf of the N.H. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that group is opposing the bill “because of the many undefined terms in the bill and the constitutional problems it creates.”
“While supporters of the bill continue to say the court must find a pattern of factors to grant a protective order, that is not what the bill says. It doesn’t tell the court, ‘You must find a pattern over a specific period of time.”
Rancourt also raised concerns over the fact that the law does not call for independent, expert testimony. “The bill does not require a professional to come into court and state that someone has a substance abuse disorder or mental health disorder,” she said. “It relies on family members or ex-family members or roommates.”
The “red flag” bill, if signed into law, would enable a law enforcement officer, family or household member, or intimate partner to file a petition with a district division of the Circuit Court, alleging that the person named in the petition poses a significant risk of causing bodily injury to himself or others by having a firearm.
The petition would have to be accompanied by a written affidavit, signed by the petitioner under oath.
After holding an evidentiary hearing, a judge could issue an extreme risk protection order that would prohibit the person named in the order from purchasing, possessing or receiving any firearms and direct that person to turn over all firearms and ammunition in their control to local law enforcement.
The order would remain in effect as long as specified by the judge, subject to appeal, not to exceed 12 months.
In any hearing to appeal the order, the people whose guns were taken would have “the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence” that they no longer pose a significant risk of injury to themselves or others.
Dr. Leonard Korn, a forensic psychiatry specialist in Portsmouth and a past president of the N.H. Medical Society, said families like the Tiltons need better options than what’s out there today.
“We need to allow family members to have some way of preventing the gun violence of their other family members, and this is the legislation that allows that to be done,” he said.