Gun procurement laws under scrutiny

By Ami Albernaz
March 28th, 2024
Susan Stearns, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire
Susan Stearns is the executive director of NAMI New Hampshire.

Shootings prompt proposals for change

Gun laws in Maine and New Hampshire have come under scrutiny following a mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine last October and a shooting at New Hampshire Hospital in November. Proposed changes in those states could have implications for the availability of mental health crisis services and access to firearms for people with mental illness.

New Hampshire House Bill 1711, or “Bradley’s Law” for Bradley Haas, the security officer shot and killed by a psychiatric patient at New Hampshire Hospital, would add certain mental health records to firearms background checks to stop people who are federally prohibited from buying guns from doing so.

In Maine, meanwhile, Governor Janet Mills used her State of the State Address in late January to propose reforms, including bolstering the state’s “yellow flag” law, tightening background checks for private gun sales, and strengthening mental crisis care in the state.

New Hampshire and Maine have the least restrictive gun laws in New England. Neither state currently requires background checks for private gun sales or for firearms owners to register their weapons. Also, unlike the remaining New England states, neither New Hampshire nor Maine has a “red flag” law in place.

Red flag laws allow people, including a family or household member, to petition for the temporary confiscation of an individual’s firearms if that person is deemed to be a risk to themself or to others.

The Lewiston shooting, which left 18 people dead and 13 others injured, heightened focus on Maine’s “yellow flag” law, which lays out a more protracted process for removing weapons. Someone who suspects a gun owner is an imminent threat can report that person to the police; it is then up to local law enforcement to take the person into protective custody, order a mental health evaluation from a medical expert, and, if the doctor and police deem necessary, apply for a court order to have their guns taken away temporarily.

Since the Lewiston shootings, assessments under the yellow flag law have surged. Mills noted in her State of the State Address that the law was used 15 times more in the three months after the shooting than it had been during the three years it was on the books before.

In February, Mills proposed additional funding to support the assessments. She also proposed funding to build a crisis center in Lewiston along with a plan for a broader network of crisis centers to improve access to behavioral health care throughout the state. (Requests for comment from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services were not answered before this article went to press).

In New Hampshire, House Bill 1711 would apply only to people who are involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility on a non-emergency basis, meaning that they have been through a court hearing, with legal representation, and found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others. They would then be reported to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Susan Stearns, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)-New Hampshire, said that due process as well as several other provisions in the current version of the bill were important in securing her organization’s “cautious” support.

These provisions include that any removal of firearms be done in a way that limits engagement between the individuals and law enforcement to avoid dangerous confrontation. (For example, firearms could be voluntarily surrendered to a family member). Additionally, people who lose access to firearms have their rights restored via a petition process.

“As advocates for people with mental illness, we needed to make sure that they’re not further discriminated against and that their civil liberties are protected,” she said.

Additionally, reports to NICS would be made by law enforcement and not mental health providers to maintain a sense of trust between providers and patients.

“We didn’t want there to be a sense of ‘my provider put me on this list,’” Stearns said.

She credited the bill sponsors for their outreach to mental health organizations in amending the legislation, which had not yet been voted on by state legislature at the time this article went to press.

Stearns also expressed disappointment with the defeat of New Hampshire House Bill 1050, which would have created a voluntary “do not sell” list for firearms. People could have added themselves to the list if they feared they would hurt themselves or others if they had access to a gun.

Stearns noted that the legislation could have been a helpful step in preventing suicide, which is often an impulsive act. One of the reasons cited in legislative debates of the measure was that physicians treating people with mental illness might coerce someone to put their name on the list.

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