In the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, gun-control activists in some states have called for more expansive background checks on those who purchase weapons. It stands to reason that selling firearms to people with criminal records is an invitation for trouble. Many gun-control opponents, however, feel that the process of making universal background checks for all purchases unnecessarily penalizes the honest majority.
Federal law requires all licensed dealers to perform a background check, through the national database, for any firearms sale. This statute, known as the Brady Law, has been in effect since 1994, with the requirement for background checks instituted four years later. Although the law applies to licensed dealers, it does not apply to private sales, gun shows, flea markets and Internet purchases, opening up the possibility of illicit purchase and sale opportunities.
Through a bill sponsored by Rep. Elaine Andrews-Ahearn, (D-Hampton), the state of New Hampshire recently attempted to close the “gun show loophole.” The bill (HB 1589), which was defeated by a House vote of 242-118 on Feb. 12, would have required universal background checks through the federal database for all gun sales and transfers in the state.
Ten states – including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island – plus the District of Columbia currently require background checks for all gun purchases.
Andrews-Ahearn, who had been working closely with local gun-control organizations since last summer, was “heartbroken and devastated” about the vote initially but vows to pursue a revised bill that will accomplish similar goals.
“Right now, if someone cannot pass a federal background check and can’t go to a federally-authorized gun dealer to buy a gun, they can still buy one over the Internet,” she explains. “They can go to a gun show and get their hands on a gun. This [bill] would have made that illegal. It was just basically expanding all the federal protections that exist.”
The new bill, a version of HB 1264 amended by the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice Committee, would establish a commission to study gun violence in the state and explore options to strengthen the background check system for firearms sales.
Rep. J.R. Hoell, (R-Dunbarton), was a key figure in the defeat of HB 1589. “This bill was completely unnecessary,” says Hoell, who firmly opposes any type of expanded background checks for gun purchasers.
Hoell points out that New Hampshire law prohibits the sale of firearms to someone the seller doesn’t know, someone known by the seller to have a criminal record or someone known by the seller to have background issues that could cause a dangerous situation.
Public polls – by New England College, University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and others – had indicated strong support for HB 1589, showing anywhere from 75-94 percent of respondents in favor of stricter background checks. The bill was endorsed by every major newspaper in the state yet failed to pass through the House.
Some gun-control activists remain resolute in their fight for tighter background checks. “We are thrilled that the bill got as far as it did,” says Melissa Rigazio, founder of New Castle Promise, a local gun-control advocacy group. “Keeping this issue in the forefront, keeping it in the papers, having people exposed to the facts is a victory for us. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to continue to pressure our legislators and really try to educate people.”
Those who seek to protect the rights of gun owners and dealers are equally determined. “It’s a natural right,” says Hoell. “It’s not about the Constitution. People have the right for self defense. That can’t be usurped.”
By Howard Newman