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January 21. 2014 6:20PM

'Gun battle' over universal background checks bill

CONCORD -- The mother of 6-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Dylan Hockley implored New Hampshire lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation mandating universal background checks for gun purchases, while acknowledging such a law would not have prevented her son's tragic death.

"This (bill) would not have stopped the deranged young man who murdered my son, but it will save someone else's son, daughter, sister, brother, father or mother," said Nicole Hockley, one of two Sandy Hook victims' parents who came to the Granite State to press for passage of House Bill 1589.

But gun rights advocates told the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs committee the bill, if passed, would punish only law-abiding citizens.

The bill would require that all firearms be sold or transferred through a licensed firearms dealer, ending private sales or sales through the Internet or at gun shows.

Among a long list of exemptions in the bill are transfers between immediate family members, police or corrections officers acting within the scope of their jobs, a U.S. Marshal or member of the armed forces doing his or her official duties, a licensed gunsmith who accepts a firearm for repair and the "temporary transfer of a firearm between spouses" for self-defense.

According to the nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 17 states and the District of Columbia "have extended the background check requirement beyond federal law to at least some private sales," while six states and the District of Columbia require "universal background checks at the point of sale for all transfers of all classes of firearms, including purchases from unlicensed sellers."

The bill faces a difficult road, even in the Democratic-controlled House. If the House gives the bill initial approval, it will then be reviewed by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which will then send it back to the House with a recommendation. If the House gives it final approval, the bill will then move to the Senate, where Republicans hold a 13-11 majority.

A spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan said after the hearing she "believes we must always be looking for ways to make our communities safer and stronger and that we owe it to those we've lost in tragedies like Newtown to come together to identify ways to help prevent such horrific acts of violence.

"The Governor appreciates that HB 1589 has encouraged an important dialogue about New Hampshire's background check system for firearm purchases, and she will continue to listen to all sides as the measure moves through the legislative process," spokesman Marc Goldberg said.

Sandy Hook parent Hockley called it "common sense" to take steps to "keep guns out of the hands of whose who shouldn't have them." She was joined by Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son, Daniel, also died on Dec. 14, 2012

"Background checks didn't save Dylan's life," Hockley acknowledged. "Many of the laws being considered in our country may not have saved him. But that hasn't stopped parents like Mark and me from advocating for strong background checks and many more sensible solutions that would prevent gun violence and save the lives of others," Hockley said.

Barden said he now has "a moral obligation to ensure that no other children are killed by gun violence."

Supporters acknowledged that the bill does nothing to try to regulate the sale of firearms to the mentally ill. Another bill, under consideration in the state Senate, would require that those adjudicated mentally ill be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

State Sen. David Pierce, D-Hanover, the lone Senate sponsor of the background checks bill, said it represents "the common sense that has long been missing from our gun laws."

But Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, secretary of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, said the group is "strongly opposed" to a bill that he said would "put New Hampshire citizens in prison for up to seven years for selling a gun to a friend or neighbor."

"Have you ever lent a rifle to a friend while hunting?" Hoell asked.

Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, called it "basically a feel-good bill.

"What happened in Sandy Hook, God bless them. It never should have happened but this bill never would have corrected what went on there," Baldasaro said, calling for increased sentences for those who committed crimes with unlicensed guns.

Tom Ryan of Lyme, a former 20-year police officer, called the bill "de facto gun registration," which, he said, "will eventually evolve into confiscation."

Ryan called it "purely an anti-gun bill that seizes opportunistically on these unfortunate tragedies."

Ralph Demicco, owner of Riley's Gun Shop in Hooksett, said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," questioning how effectively such a law would be enforced.

Former state Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball called it an "outrageous bill that will "turn thousands of New Hampshire law-abiding citizens into felons.

"I don't intend to abide by this bill," he said. "I'm sick and tired of having to come here to these hallowed halls to continue to defend the God-given rights we all have."

To applause from fellow opponents, he called on the bill's sponsors to "step down today" from their elective offices. "You don't belong here."

House Republican Leader Gene Chandler R-Bartlett, said in a statement the bill "attempts to solve a non-existent problem.

"We all want to keep guns out of the hands of those with criminal intent or those who may be mentally unfit, but this bill is an excessive overreach," Chandler said. "Criminals will always find ways to circumvent this law as they do other laws."

But chief sponsor Rep. Elaine Andrews-Ahearn, D-Hampton Falls, insisted the policy is not a "political issue," but instead "an issue of common sense and an issue of public health and the safety of our communities."


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