Two days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, the topic of gun control came to New Hampshire House. The conversation was brief.
Representative Debra Altschiller, a Democrat from Stratham, took to the podium to try to convince the Republican-led Legislature to suspend the rules to allow late admission and passage of a bill to tighten background checks. The last-ditch bill would require background checks for all commercial sales in the state — not just at licensed retailers.
“I propose that the Court finds that this law will protect public safety by helping to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, domestic abusers and people found to be mentally ill,” Altschiller said, citing the Texas shooting. “…We must act now. We can’t wait.
Moments later, Rep. Terry Roy, a Republican from Deerfield, pushed back.
“We should never, ever use tragedy to advance legislation,” he said. “…The people of this state have the right to be heard at a hearing. They don’t want bills being sneaked in at the last minute without a hearing, and that just won’t happen.
The attempt was dismissed, 163-188.
The exchange summed up the political sentiments on gun laws inside the State House. A week after the deadliest school shooting since the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre in 2012, some Democratic lawmakers are calling for gun law reform nationwide. But New Hampshire has seen little momentum for change.
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Since Democrats lost a majority in the New Hampshire House and Senate in 2020, state Democratic lawmakers have introduced only one major bill to change gun laws. House Bill 1668, introduced by the late Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Democrat from Concord, would have tightened background checks and required them for all business sales — the same legislation Altschiller tried to resurrect last week.
The bill didn’t go far, receiving a 179-144 vote in the House on March 15. Rogers died of cancer in April.
As candidates run for re-election this week, it’s unclear how many gun laws will feature in candidate platforms for either Democrats or Republicans, despite aftershocks of the shooting ‘Uvalde.
“We anticipate that we will be dealing with several bills next year that will come out of this experience,” House Democratic Leader David Cote of Nashua said, speaking about the Uvalde shooting at a conference. press Friday. “We haven’t decided which pieces we’re going to work on yet.”
For many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Sununu, the absence of legislative changes is a desired outcome. Sununu signed a law in 2017 making Granite State a “constitutional carry” state by eliminating the need to apply for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in the state. Since then, Sununu said the state does not need to update its gun laws.
The governor repeated that at a press conference on Wednesday, instead highlighting the state’s efforts to improve crisis preparedness in schools. “I’ve always said we’re not looking to make any changes at the moment,” he said.
Few recent bills from Democrats or Republicans
In the wake of Uvalde’s shooting, New Hampshire Democrats say they plan to push the legislation forward. But in recent years, the party has paused in pushing for comprehensive reform.
In 2019, Democrats passed House Bill 109, which required background checks for all gun sales, including those at gun shows; House Bill 564, which prohibited people from carrying firearms on school property; and House Bill 514, which established a three-day waiting period before purchasing firearms.
Sununu vetoed all three, arguing that they would violate the state’s “culture of responsible gun ownership and individual liberty”.
A year later, Sununu vetoed the Democrats’ ‘red flag’ law that would have given courts the ability to order the temporary confiscation of guns for people deemed a threat to themselves. or for others.
In November 2020, the Democrats lost their legislative majority. After that, the party’s gun reform bills all but stalled. While Rogers introduced HB 1668 in the House this year, Senate Democrats have not introduced any major gun bills.
Rep. Casey Conley, a Democrat from Dover who helped fight for the Rogers background check bill this year, said the pullout was strategic.
“The reality was that after the election two years ago, unfortunately there wouldn’t be much appetite for gun safety legislation,” he said. “So I think lawmakers have made the decision, ‘Why go down this road for something that won’t have a chance?’
Côté, meanwhile, said Sununu’s veto of previous years’ bills had hampered any chance of reform. “If we hadn’t had the governor’s veto, I think we would have had part of it already,” he said.
Cote and Conley say the tragedy in Texas last week is motivating some Democratic House candidates to run for office this week. Conley himself says it was a catalyst in his decision to seek re-election.
Still, while reactions and emotions over the Uvalde shooting remain raw, Democratic state leaders say it’s unclear to what extent gun laws will factor into their campaigns this year. The House Democratic caucus is still working on draft legislation to release to voters detailing its policy goals if it regains a majority.
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“I would say that could well be part of it,” Côté said of the gun laws. “I’m not sure what the individual members plan to do and what things they plan to focus on.”
Meanwhile, since regaining their legislative majority in 2020, Republican lawmakers have pushed to loosen some of the state’s gun restrictions. But these efforts also failed.
Two bills passed in 2021 would have eliminated the state’s “Gun Line” background check system for handgun purchases and deferred all such background checks to the FBI’s system. Currently, handgun purchases are reviewed by both the FBI and New Hampshire State Police, a process that gun rights groups say is too slow and prone to abuse. errors.
“The federal system works, we have to use the federal system anyway, so why not go straight to the federal?” said Sean List, a lawyer who helped draft the bill, in an interview last year.
Sununu also vetoed these bills, arguing that the bill was unnecessary and would cede state authority over background checks to the federal government. And he repeated the message he sent by vetoing the Democrats’ bill.
“New Hampshire’s laws are well-crafted and reflect our culture of responsible gun ownership and individual liberty,” he wrote in one of his veto messages last year.
Focus on school safety
Instead of gun legislation, Sununu instead pointed to state efforts to improve safety protocols against mass school shootings. In 2018, a New Hampshire School Safety Preparedness Task Force, convened following a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, released a report with recommendations for: additional training for schools and law enforcement to respond to shootings; improved communication during disasters; and a renewed emphasis on techniques such as “social and emotional learning” to avoid potential violence.
Recommendations included requiring public schools to develop new disaster plans and a state-led effort to review those plans. The report did not include any recommendations regarding gun laws.
Sununu administration officials highlighted the report and the changes it introduced as a key part of the state’s response to mass shootings in other parts of the country.
Asked by Democratic adviser Cinde Warmington about the need for new gun laws in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut cited the task force report and the reforms.
“Over the years we’ve tried to work hard not to react to this, but recognizing that this is already a threat, whether or not there’s an incident somewhere or not, and just ahead of that,” Edelblut said at an Executive Council meeting on Wednesday.
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Department of Security Commissioner Bob Quinn argued that keeping the community alert to threats and disturbing behavior is more important than tightening background checks.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Sununu said the threat of violence in schools was real. But he rejected the idea of passing new laws on access to firearms.
“Unfortunately, there is no community, there is no state that is immune to a crisis like the one we had in Texas,” Sununu said Wednesday. “…I wish I could say that if we just pass the right laws, we’ll be fine. It’s not that simple, unfortunately.
Conley disagrees. And he says Democrats are quietly working to find approaches that could win Republican votes next year.
“You can Google ‘How many guns are there in this country right now? How many assault weapons are there in this country right now?’ he says, “So on some level anyone who looks at this rationally knows that you can never stop every type of mass shooting incident of a gun death. But these are, I think, progressive steps that could prevent future incidents.
This story was originally posted by New Hampshire Bulletin.
State Representative Debra Altschiller is the wife of Howard Altschiller, editor and CEO of Seacoast Media Group.