The Bulletin Board

‘Gun Line’ bill divides Republicans on House committee

By: - May 10, 2021 5:09 pm
A man picks up a handgun at a gun store

Since 1993, New Hampshire has had a state-run system called the “Gun Line” to help oversee purchases of handguns in the state. (Getty Images)

A Republican effort to dismantle New Hampshire’s state handgun background check system could be in jeopardy, after a key House committee recommended killing it Monday.

Senate Bill 141 seeks to end New Hampshire’s “Gun Line” – the system in which State Police reviews would-be buyers of handguns before approving the sales.

Currently, State Police gets involved only in background checks involving handguns; long guns and other firearms fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI. SB 141 would authorize the FBI to carry out all background checks in the state and cut out State Police entirely.

The bill was championed by Senate Republicans and firearms rights groups as a way to address what they say is an inefficient system that has led to long delays for handgun buyers. It passed the Senate on party lines, with full Republican support. 

But Republicans on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee splintered over the bill Monday, with half of them joining Democrats in opposition. The committee voted to recommend killing the bill, 15-6. 

Under the current system, when a person in New Hampshire wants to buy a handgun, the gun store cashier must call the State Police Gun Line, which then must carry out an investigation into whether the buyer is eligible to buy a gun. 

The process involves checking the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a database run by the FBI, as well as other databases, and cross-checking state records to make sure the would-be buyer does not have a domestic violence or stalking protective order against them. At its most efficient, it takes several days. 

To Rep. John Burt, a member of the committee and co-sponsor of the bill, the legislation removes an unnecessary middleman – the New Hampshire State Police – and replaces it with a more streamlined verification process by the FBI.

Burt and other proponents say a recent backlog has forced some constituents to wait weeks or even months before being able to acquire the hand gun. 

“A yes vote on a motion to (designate as inexpedient to legislate) is a vote in favor of a wait period for gun buyers,” said Burt, a Goffstown Republican. “This is an anti-gun vote.”

But Democrats and some Republicans have called the reforms unnecessary and counterproductive. The State Police already announced changes in late 2020 to speed up the Gun Line process, they noted.

Some took issue with another piece of the bill that would make county sheriff’s departments responsible for returning court-confiscated firearms back to their owners – a process currently in the hands of State Police. That move could create unfunded liabilities for local governments, some lawmakers argued.

Others argued State Police is best equipped to review domestic violence and stalking restraining orders, and that deferring the process to federal authorities could cause some orders to be missed.

“I think the Gun Line protects women in those circumstances,” said David Welch, a Kingston Republican and former chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. “And it’s mostly women who get protective orders.”

The bill has divided gun groups as much as it has Republicans. 

Some prominent organizations, such as the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, have supported the move to end the state background checks. 

But other, more local Granite State gun rights groups have actually come out against the proposed move.

J.R. Hoell, a former state legislator and a leading member of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, said the coalition stands against the law not because members trust State Police, but because they don’t trust the FBI.

“It’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t,” Hoell said in an interview.

To Hoell, putting the background check system in the hands of the FBI could make the process move faster – a reason that many firearms dealers support the bill. But it could also mean that the federal government could make decisions on eligibility that could be difficult to appeal.

“These are FBI employees and contractors who are making judgment calls on whether people were qualified to purchase a firearm,” Hoell said. “ And none of us trust them. That’s the bottom line.”

By keeping the process in the hands of State Police, the Legislature could hold local officials accountable if the Gun Line was processed too slowly, Hoell argues – similarly to late 2020 when the Department of Safety instituted reforms under pressure.

Whether other gun supporters and Republicans in the House agree to kill the bill is an open question.

The committee’s recommendation is just a recommendation; the bill will move to the 400-member House chamber for a formal vote in the coming weeks. 

House and Senate clash over statute of limitations

House and Senate lawmakers are hitting a point of disagreement over how much to extend the statute of limitations for child victims of assault.

A bill passed by the House in April would allow a victim of childhood assault to report that assault any time up to six years after their 18th birthday. 

The bill, HB 239, would dramatically lengthen the time available to report; currently, the state’s statute of limitations extends six years after the date of the alleged assault, no matter the age of the victim. That would mean a 10-year-old victim would only have until they turn 16 to decide whether to report their assault to the authorities and participate in an investigation. 

But a Senate amendment to the bill shortened the proposed time span from six years to three years. 

In their meeting Monday, members of the House Criminal Justice Committee made clear that they weren’t conceding the point easily.

“Personally, I like the six years better,” said Rep. Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican and the committee chairman. “I think if you get an 18-year-old at the point they’re 21 – we’ve passed laws saying that person can’t buy cigarettes. So, I’m just looking at the maturity of the human brain.”

Abbas and the committee decided to request a “committee of conference”: a formal committee of senators and representatives to hash out the differences within the bill. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.