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January 14. 2014 9:32PM

State Senate bill to prohibit gun sales to mentally ill sparks debate

CONCORD — People with mental illness should not be the only targets of a proposed law to remove gun rights from dangerous people, advocates told lawmakers Tuesday.

Senate Bill 244 would require people with court-determined mental illness to be added to the federal list of those prohibited from purchasing guns — a list that licensed dealers use for background checks.

But advocates for the mentally ill and disabled argued the focus should be on a person’s dangerousness, not their mental health.

“There are very dangerous people who have no diagnosed mental illness or substance abuse disorders,” said Ken Norton, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness NH. “Like Carl Drega, some of these people are well known to our communities and to law enforcement.”

Many gun rights advocates found the provision in Dover Democratic Sen. David Watters’ bill much too broad and said it infringed on the constitutional right to bear arms. Former gubernatorial candidate and Republican Party State Chair Jack Kimball of Dover said the Second Amendment is the protector of the entire constitution.

“We’re beginning to see nationally a move toward gun confiscation,” Kimball said. “This bill is a camel’s nose under the tent.”

Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, said the bill is the start of a movement to disarm the United States, as was done in Australia and England. “This bill will lead to that, I have no doubt,” he said.

Supporters said only those with non-emergency, long-term, involuntary commitments for mental illness would lose their rights, not those with short-term problems who go to a therapist for help. Under the bill, names added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System list would include those:

• Found incompetent to stand trial;

• Found not guilty by reason of insanity;

• Having a court-appointed guardian;

• Involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

The bill also includes a provision that allows a person to have his or her name removed from the background check list if he or she is no longer mentally ill.

Pro Gun NH backed an amended version of the bill. The group’s attorney, Evan Nappen, said the bill would provide relief to thousands of New Hampshire residents.

James Bryant of Enfield said the bill would finally allow him to regain his guns, which he lost when he had a mental breakdown.

He has since recovered and has the support of his counselors in regaining his gun rights.

“(The path) comes to a dead end in the middle of the night,” Bryant told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I’m just looking for a path to redemption.”

The bill is supported by law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office, but ran afoul of some disability advocacy groups who said those with mental health issues are unfairly singled out.

NH Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Devon Chaffee said the decision to deny someone their constitutional right ought to be based on statistical data, not on perpetuating a stereotype that one group of people is more likely to commit violence.

She noted those with mental illness are no more likely to commit violent acts than the general population.

Michael Skibbie of the Disability Rights Center said lawmakers ought to rethink the list of qualifiers.

He noted someone can be a shoplifter and found incompetent to stand trial and the court can assign a guardian to watch over a person’s financial matters; in neither case would the person be dangerous to themselves and others.

After the 3 1/2-hour public hearing, Watters said some good points were raised that he hopes to address.

The committee will accept written testimony on the bill until Friday.

grayno@unionleader.com


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