New Hampshire debates ‘red-flag’ gun control bill

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The debate over making it easier to take guns away from dangerous people in New Hampshire featured red T-shirts on one side and white pearls on the other Tuesday.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would allow family members or law enforcement officers to seek a court order restricting gun access to those posing an immediate risk to themselves or public safety. Fourteen states already have passed so-called “red flag” laws and several others are debating them this year, according to a review by The Associated Press last month.

Supporters of the New Hampshire bill said they were particularly motivated by the state’s high suicide rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June identified the state has having one of the largest increases in suicide rates compared to other states, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for residents ages 15-34. In the last five years, there were just over 1,100 suicide deaths, and nearly half involved a firearm.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Debra Altschiller, said the state doesn’t ignore other leading causes of death such as cancer or drug overdoses, and should take the same approach to suicide.

“When faced with these kinds of facts, what do we do? Do we throw up our hands and say, ‘This is terrible’?” said Altschiller, D-Stratham. “No. We take action.”

In testimony she called “personal, painful and frankly, stigmatizing,” Margaret Tilton of Exeter described her son George, who died at age 23 in 2017. An exuberant child and generous young man, he struggled with depression from a young age and bought a handgun in 2016, she said. That time, police were able to persuade him to surrender the gun, but he bought another one in 2017 and used it three weeks later.

“My family and I will carry this grief for the rest of our lives,” she said. “There can be no meaning to George’s senseless death unless we create meaning. We know there are better tools out there we ask you to give us access to them.”

Dozens of the bill’s supporters wore red T-shirts to represent the advocacy group Moms Demand Action, while opponents — including several male members of the committee — wore strands of fake pearls in support of the Women’s Defense League. The latter dubbed the bill “the mother of all gun control bills” and called it “the most destructive piece of legislation to ever be introduced to the legislature in modern history.”

While supporters of the bill argued the law would only be used in cases of extreme risk, opponents argued it would undermine their constitutional rights and leave gun owners vulnerable to false accusations. Ignoring the issue of suicide firearms deaths altogether, Rep. Al Baldasaro listed other states with both stricter gun control laws and higher murder rates than New Hampshire. According to the CDC, New Hampshire had 146 firearms deaths in 2017, including suicides, the 11th lowest rate in the country.

“Show me. Where is the issue in New Hampshire that we’re trying to fix?” he said. “New Hampshire does not have a problem. We’re one of the safest states in the country. Please stop watching TV about other states.”

Millard Martin of Lancaster said he decided at 4:30 a.m. to make the long drive to Concord to testify against the bill. He implored the committee to read both the state and federal constitutions.

“We wouldn’t be here if you understood what you have read, if you read it at all,” he said.

Red-flag laws gained momentum after Nikolas Cruz, a young man widely known to be mentally troubled but who had access to weapons, killed 17 students and staff members at a Florida high school in 2018. According to the data obtained from several states by the AP, more than 1,700 orders allowing guns to be seized for weeks, months or up to a year were issued in 2018. The actual number likely was much higher since the data was incomplete and didn’t include California.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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