January 10. 2017 4:04PM

Senate panel backs eliminating permit requirement to carry a concealed weapon

State House Bureau

Sen. Jeb Bradley opens a Senate hearing on concealed carry in a hearing room at the State House on Tuesday. (Dave Solomon/staff via Twitter)

CONCORD — Supporters of a bill that would make it easier to legally carry a concealed weapon in New Hampshire are hoping the third time is the charm.

The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted 3-2 along party lines to support Senate Bill 12, which  would eliminate the state's permit requirement for concealed carry, after hearing impassioned testimony for three hours.

State lawmakers are considering the emotional gun control issue for the third time in three sessions, and supporters of the change are confident that this year the measure will be signed into law. The past two attempts passed with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.

"This legislation simply serves to restore the intent of the U.S. Constitution by eliminating the licensing requirement to carry a concealed firearm by individuals legally able to do so," said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, sponsor of the legislation. "This issue is about protecting our citizens' lives, liberties and loved ones and that is why we need to restore law-abiding citizens' rights to carry a firearm."

The hearing room at the State House once again became a venue for the gun control debate, as representatives of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety spoke against the change, while representatives of the Women's Defense League of New Hampshire testified in favor.

"I am deeply disappointed that the Judiciary Committee chose to move forward with this bill," said Robin Skudlarek, with the New Hampshire chapter of Moms Demand Action. "SB 12 is not about defending the rights of responsible gun owners. It's about dismantling a longstanding law that has helped keep New Hampshire residents safe for nearly a century. Doing away with the concealed carry permit requirement makes zero sense."

Noticeably absent from the hearing room this year were representatives from the state Chiefs of Police Association and the Department of Justice, which have testified against the measure in the past.

"The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police has and remains opposed to legislation changes that remove the local police chief or governing authority's ability to assess the suitability of a person making application for a permit to carry a concealed firearm while at the same time being compelled to issue the permit," wrote Chief Peter Bartlett of the Hooksett PD, responding to an email inquiry. "The association's position has been made known."

Police chiefs in the state can deny a concealed-carry permit to licensed gun owners if the applicant is not deemed "suitable," according to current law. That's too vague and gives police chiefs too much latitude to discriminate, according to proponents of the change.

People have successfully challenged denials by police chiefs in court, but at great cost, said Michelle Levell of the Women's Defense League, as she described the circumstances surrounding her effort to renew her concealed carry permit in Windham.

"There have been people who've been denied by chiefs based on their performance at a Town Meeting, where maybe they didn't want to increase the budget enough," said former Sen. Robert Clegg of Hudson, now a lobbyist who said he was testifying as a private citizen.

Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress, said 42 states either limit or prohibit concealed carry for a good reason.

"People carrying hidden, loaded handguns in public create unnecessary risks of intentional or accidental shootings," she said. "The presence of concealed guns increases the risk that everyday disagreements will escalate into shootouts, especially in places where disputes frequently occur — in bars, at sporting events and in traffic."

Supporters of the bill successfully argued that the public has nothing to fear from law-abiding citizens with concealed weapons, and that criminals do not bother to apply for permits.