Bill looks at mental health records in gun buys

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - People barred from buying guns for mental health reasons should be allowed to prove to a judge they’re capable of owning a firearm, supporters told a House committee Wednesday.

“We’re dealing with the awesome power of the state to take away someone’s freedom,” said Sen. David Watters, the prime sponsor of a bill to create a process to expunge the mental health records.

Federal law bars people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or declared mentally ill by a judge from buying guns from licensed dealers. A bill before the Judiciary Committee would allow people to petition to have their names and mental health information removed from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Watters, a Dover Democrat, argued it is a matter of equity for New Hampshire citizens to have a way to annul mental health records similar to the process they can use to annul criminal records.

“We’re talking about people who have not been convicted of any crime,” he said.

Opponents told the committee that the bill is confusing, flawed and would cut off future access to the records.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice pointed out that Watters‘ original bill proposed requiring New Hampshire to report to federal authorities people judged by a court to be mentally ill.

The state would then have been required to send their names to be added to the federal list of people denied the right to buy guns during background checks. New Hampshire is one of 17 states that does not report the names to be added to the background check system. Watters could not win support for the proposal in the Senate, which instead passed the annulment proposal.

Rice said it made no sense to adopt a process to either destroy or seal the records - something she said the bill did not make clear - making them unavailable in future interactions with the person. She said the bill could apply to someone found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity.

“That information would no longer be available to the mental health system or to the courts,” she said.

Rice said it also was unclear who would be notified to contest the annulment petitions and whether the records would be destroyed or sealed.

Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney, who opposed the bill, said it also lacked a waiting period for a person freed from an involuntary commitment to file a petition and suggested the waiting time be at least three years. He said the annulment process for criminal convictions is three years for misdemeanors and up to 10 years for felonies. A waiting period for someone committed involuntarily due to mental illness would provide a barometer of whether that person was taking prescribed medications and unlikely to need further help, he said.

But Evan Nappen of Pro Gun New Hampshire urged the committee not to put the bill off to another year.

“It’s time for New Hampshire to help its people,” he said.

Regardless whether the state reports people to the background check system, they cannot fill out federal forms without running afoul of federal law if they want to buy guns if their mental health records have not been annulled, he said.

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