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April 22. 2014 11:22PM

House committee opposes bill to keep mental health records out of federal gun checks

CONCORD — The House Judicial Committee voted 19-0 Tuesday to kill a bill establishing an annulment process to expunge mental health records.

Senate Bill 244 would establish an annulment procedure that would allow those prohibited from owning firearms due to mental illness to be removed from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — the list licensed gun dealers use for background checks.

But law enforcement and several gun rights groups said the bill the Senate approved last month would not do what supporters contend it would do, questioning whether it would meet federal guidelines to remove someone from the list.

Bill supporters argue the annulment is needed to end the stigmatization of the mentally ill, although almost all agree SB 244 would need significant changes to accomplish its goal.

"This bill is a mess," said committee member Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland. "This may be a lawyer's dream, but it's a citizen's nightmare."

Federal law prohibits anyone who has been involuntarily committed to a mental facility or a court has found mentally ill to purchase guns through a licensed dealer.

However, New Hampshire is one of 17 states that do not report those found mentally ill by courts to the federal background check list.

The original bill would have required the state to report the mentally ill and would have established the annulment process.

The Senate refused to go along with the reporting requirements or establishing a committee to study the issue of adding the mentally ill to the federal prohibition list.

Bill supporters say a process is needed at the state level both for removal from the federal list and to fill out the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive qualifying form at a licensed dealer without committing a federal felony. Someone purchasing a gun is asked if they have been treated for mental illness.

At a public hearing earlier this month, Concord attorney Evan Nappen of Pro Gun NH, which supports the bill, said falsely filling out the form is a federal felony with a sentence of 10 years in federal prison. Without annulling a person's mental health records on the state level, someone would be committing a felony if he or she answered "No."

Committee member Rep. Larry Phillips, D-Keene, noted not all mental illness is the same. People involuntarily committed to a mental health institution usually because they are a threat to themselves or others may respond well to treatment, but that is not always the case, he noted.

If someone is suicidal or homicidal and would use a gun, Phillips said, "I'm not sure you want to put a gun back into their hands very quickly."

The main motivation for the bill is for people on the federal gun prohibition list to get off the list so they can obtain a firearm said Rep. Robert Rowe, R-Amherst. "This bill does not do the job," he said.

The full House is expected to act on the bill next week.

grayno@unionleader.com


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