CONCORD, NH — Down party lines, the Senate Monday approved a controversial bill intended to reduce suicides and mass killings that allows confiscation of firearms under certain circumstances.
House Bill 687 would establish a civil procedure to remove firearms and ammunition from someone who is at risk of harming him, herself or others.
The bill would establish “extreme risk protection orders” through a civil process initiated by a person’s family, housemates or law enforcement.
Opponents argued the bill tramples on the constitutional rights of individuals on hearsay evidence without due process.
Sen Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, told of losing family members to suicide by firearms and the effect that has had on his family.
He said his grandmother insisted he go with her into the crematorium to view his uncle’s body after he took his life.
“I could feel her pain, her sorrow and anguish. She had lost yet another of her children in the same awful, senseless and preventable way,” Morgan said. “My grandmother carried around that pain that no parent should even have to bear for the rest of her life.”
He said he knows the bill is but one piece of what is needed to solve the problems of suicide, mental health and addiction.
“But it just might make it so one family out there, maybe 10 maybe 100, maybe just one grandmother,” Morgan said, “does not have to go through the experience I just shared with you.”
Under the bill, a family member, housemate or law enforcement would be able to file a petition with the local district court claiming the person is a threat to himself, herself or others.
Petitions would need to be signed and the petitioner would swear under oath to its content or face perjury charges.
A hearing would need to be held within seven days and the subject would have an opportunity to contest the accusations.
For a judge to grant a petition, a preponderance of evidence would be needed. An order could remove a person’s firearms for up to a year, and the person would need to petition the court to prove he or she is no longer a threat to regain possession.
But opponents said a person’s firearms could be confiscated without any legal response in ex parte hearings over the telephone and the bill encourages abuse by disgruntled family members.
Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said while well-intentioned, the bill does not require anyone found to be a harm to themselves or others to have a mental health evaluation.
“This only takes someone to say there is something wrong to get into court to take away your Second Amendment rights,” she said. “You’re guilty before you can prove your innocence. That is not how our system of jurisprudence works.”
She said she could not support a bill that takes away someone’s rights based on the accusation of another person. “That is wrong.”
The Senate voted 14-10 to approve the bill, which now goes to Gov. Chris Sununu, who is likely to veto it.
The Senate approved a bill establishing an independent commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries on a 15-9 vote, also sending it to Sununu who vetoed a similar bill last year.
Supporters of House Bill 1665 said the bill was changed to address the governor’s concern that the legislature has sole authority to redraw the state’s political boundaries under the constitution.
They said the bill is clear the commission is advisory and the final decision would be up to the legislature.
“The current system allows for gerrymandering where politicians get to pick their voters,” said Morgan, “rather than the other way around as it should be.”
The commission is about taking partisanship out of drawing the political districts, he said, not about Democrats or Republicans or liberals and conservatives.
“It’s what the public expects of us,” Morgan said.
But opponents said the process would make it less accountable, not more because the commission would be unelected and not accountable to anyone.
Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said California has a similar commission and ran into trouble when its members failed to recognize who the activists were trying to influence their decisions.
“At the hearing last week, you already had individuals figuring out how to bypass this system,” she said.
Under the bill, the House and Senate leadership of both parties would choose 10 members from a list of candidates, and those 10 members would choose the final five members of the commission.
The commission would hold public hearings in all 10 counties.
The Legislature would have to approve the final plan. If the plan is voted down, the commission would review the reasons and revise the plan for another vote.
A state’s political boundaries have to be redrawn every 10 years to align with census figures.
The Senate on a 23-1 vote approved a bill to expand the definition of felonious sexual assault to include sexual contact between school employees and students, and when the perpetrator is in a position of authority and the victim is between 13 and 18 years of age.
The bill was introduced, along with a similar Senate bill, to address a situation in the Concord School District between a student and a teacher.
The Senate bill passed on a 24-0 vote, after an amendment was defeated to expand the definition beyond schools.
The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said while he was pleased to see the issue addressed, he was disappointed the broader definition was not before the Senate.
The coercion problem goes beyond educational institutions, he said, with predators grooming their victims in other settings like Boys Scouts and summer camps.
There was a lot of justifiable anger about the legislature’s failure to act on the problem, Bradley said, and he was glad it brought about some action.
Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said she too is disappointed, wishing they could move forward with her Senate bill, which passed 24-0.
“(House Bill) 2240 is not perfect,” she said, but “sometimes we have to move forward with something that is not perfect but gets the job done.”
Bradley also said he was disappointed Democrats were not willing to approve Senate Bill 759, which would make an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s pregnancy and childbirth an unlawful discriminatory practice.
The bill had bipartisan support but was not included in the priority bills adopted by the Senate.
An agreement between the two parties sought to prevent any new amendments to bills that did not have bipartisan support, but Republicans tried unsuccessfully to bring several of those bills off the table Monday including SB 759, which failed on a partisan 14-10 vote.
Gov. Chris Sununu sent out a press release lamenting the Senate’s action, saying, “Senate Democrats chose to spend time today moving forward with their partisan agenda while simultaneously killing important, bipartisan legislation like student debt relief and pregnancy protections in the workplace.”
On a party-line vote, the Senate approved a bill to allow medical monitoring of a person who has been exposed to a toxic chemical although he or she is not currently ill.
The bill is aimed at exposure to PFAs (polyfluoroalkyls) which has contaminated drinking water around the state, particularly in Merrimack and the Seacoast.
Republicans argued the bill was too broad and needed a narrower focus and it would be detrimental to businesses and the state’s business climate.
Down party lines, the Senate approved three bills dealing with energy issues including net metering, energy efficiency and renewable energy.
The Senate agreed to changes the House made in three Senate bills, sending them to the governor.
SB 166 would expand the limit on net metering, which requires the utility to purchase a small producer’s excess power; Senate Bill 122, which restores the state’s energy efficiency fund; and Senate Bill 124, which doubles the amount of renewable energy required by 2040.
The Senate also approved a plan to allow electronic notarization of documents and electronic will witnessing, which supporters said would be particularly helpful in the current pandemic with elderly patients.
The bill has the support of the court system.
Many of the bills passed by the Senate Monday will go before the House Tuesday when it meets at 10 a.m. at Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.
The House session is expected to be the last legislative meeting of the 2020 session except for veto day when the House and Senate attempt to override gubernatorial vetoes.
Garry Rayno reports for InDepthNh.org may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org