Two days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, the topic of gun control came to the New Hampshire House. The conversation was brief.
Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat, arrived at the podium attempting to convince the Republican-led Legislature to suspend rules to allow the late admission and passage of a bill to tighten background checks. The last-minute bill would require background checks for all commercial sales in the state — not just at licensed retailers.
“I propose that the General Court believes this law will protect public safety by helping to keep firearms out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, and those adjudicated to be mentally ill,” Altschiller said, invoking the Texas shooting. “… We must act now. We cannot wait.”
Moments later, Rep. Terry Roy, a Deerfield Republican, pushed back.
“We should not ever, ever use tragedy to push legislation,” he said. “… The people of this state have a right to be heard in a hearing process. They do not want bills snuck in at the last minute and with no hearing, and it’s just not going to happen.”
The attempt was voted down, 163-188.
The exchange encapsulated political feelings on gun laws inside the State House. A week after the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, some Democratic lawmakers are calling for gun law reform at the national level. But New Hampshire has seen little momentum for change.
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Since Democrats lost majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate in 2020, state Democratic lawmakers have put forward just one major bill to change firearms laws. House Bill 1668, presented by the late Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Concord Democrat, would have tightened background checks and required them for all commercial sales — the same legislation that Altschiller tried to resurrect last week.
The bill did not make it far, receiving a 179-144 vote on the House floor on March 15. Rogers died of cancer in April.
As candidates file for re-election this week, it is unclear how much firearm laws are going to feature in candidates’ platforms, whether for Democrats or Republicans, despite the aftershocks of the Uvalde shooting.
“We expect that we will be dealing with several pieces of legislation next year that come out of this experience,” said House Democratic Leader David Cote of Nashua, speaking on the Uvalde shooting at a press conference Friday. “We’ve not decided as yet which particular pieces we’ll be working on.”
To many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Sununu, the lack of legislative changes is a desired outcome. Sununu signed a law in 2017 making the 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 has said the state does not need to update its gun laws.
The governor repeated that in a press conference Wednesday, stressing instead the state’s efforts to improve crisis preparedness in schools. “I’ve always said, we’re not looking to make any changes right now,” he said.
Few recent bills from Democrats or Republicans
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, New Hampshire Democrats say they plan to advance legislation. But in recent years, the party has taken a pause from pushing forward 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 barred people from carrying firearms on school property; and House Bill 514, which established a three-day waiting period before firearms could be purchased.
Sununu vetoed all three, arguing they would violate the state’s “culture of responsible gun ownership and individual freedom.”
A year later, Sununu vetoed the Democrat-passed “red flag” law that would have given courts the ability to order temporary confiscation of firearms for people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
In November 2020, Democrats lost their legislative majorities. After that, the party’s gun reform bills slowed to a near halt. While Rogers filed HB 1668 in the House this year, Senate Democrats have not filed any major firearms bills.
Rep. Casey Conley, a Dover Democrat who had helped fight for Rogers’ background check bill this year, said that that withdrawal was strategic.
“The reality was, after the election two falls ago, there was not going to be much appetite for gun safety legislation, unfortunately,” he said. “So I think lawmakers made the decision that: ‘Why go down this road for something that’s going to be have no chance?’”
Cote, meanwhile, said Sununu’s veto of the bills in previous years had stymied any chances of reform. “Had we not had the gubernatorial veto I think we’d already have some of that,” he said.
Cote and Conley say the tragedy in Texas last week is motivating some Democratic House candidates to file to run for office this week. Conley himself says it was a catalyst in his decision to file for re-election.
Yet even as reactions and emotions to the Uvalde shooting remain raw, state Democratic leaders say it is unclear how much gun-related legislation will factor into their campaigns this year. The House Democratic caucus is still working on a legislative blueprint to release to voters detailing its policy goals if it retakes the majority.
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“I would say that that may well be part of it,” Cote said of firearms legislation. “I’m not sure what individual members plan to do and what things they plan to emphasize.”
Meanwhile, since regaining their legislative majorities in 2020, Republicans lawmakers have been pressing to ease some of the state’s restrictions on firearms. But those efforts have also been unsuccessful.
Two bills passed in 2021 would have eliminated the state’s “Gun Line” background check system for handgun purchases and deferred all of those background checks to the FBI’s system. Currently, handgun purchases are screened by both the FBI and the New Hampshire State Police, a process that firearms rights groups argue is too slow and error prone.
“The federal system works, we have to use the federal system anyway, so why wouldn’t we go directly to the feds?” said Sean List, an attorney who helped author the bill, in an interview last year.
Sununu also vetoed those bills, arguing that the bill was not necessary and would cede state authority over background checks to the federal government. And he repeated the message he sent when vetoing the Democrats’ bill.
“New Hampshire’s laws are well-crafted and fit our culture of responsible gun ownership and individual freedom,” he wrote in one of his veto messages last year.
School safety emphasis
In lieu of firearms legislation, Sununu has instead highlighted the state’s efforts to improve safety protocols against mass shootings in schools. In 2018, a New Hampshire School Safety Preparedness Task Force, convened in the wake of a shooting at a high school 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 focus on techniques such as “social and emotional learning” to head off potential violence.
The recommendations included requiring public schools to design new disaster plans, and a state-led effort to review those plans. The report did not include any recommendations around firearms laws.
Officials in the Sununu administration have pointed to the report and the changes it has ushered as a key component of the state’s response to mass shootings in other areas of the country.
Asked by Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington about the need for new firearms legislation in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut cited the taskforce report and the reforms.
“Over the years, we have been trying to work hard on not being reactive to this, but recognizing that this is a threat already, whether or not there’s an incident someplace or not, and just being ahead of that,” Edelblut said at an Executive Council meeting Wednesday.
Department of Safety Commissioner Bob Quinn argued community vigilance over threats and worrisome behavior is more important than tightening background checks.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Sununu said the threat of violence in schools is real. But he dismissed the idea of passing new laws around firearms access.
“Unfortunately, there is no community, there’s no state that is immune from a crisis like we saw in Texas,” Sununu said Wednesday. “… I wish we could say if we just pass the right laws, everything will be just fine. It’s not that simple, unfortunately.”
Conley disagrees. And he says Democrats are quietly working to find approaches that might win over Republican votes next year.
“You can Google ‘How many guns are in this country right now? How many assault weapons are in this country right now?’” he said. “So on some level, anyone who looks at this rationally knows you’re never going to be able to stop every type of mass shooting incident of a gun fatality. But it’s about, I think, incremental steps that could prevent future incidents.”
This story was originally published by New Hampshire Bulletin.
State Rep. Debra Altschiller is the wife of Howard Altschiller, executive editor and general manager of Seacoast Media Group.
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