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After Lewiston shootings, New Hampshire lawmakers are divided on the need for gun policy changes

Dan Tuohy

State leaders in New Hampshire reacted to Wednesday's mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine with shock and horror. But while Democrats reiterated calls for stricter gun policies in the wake of the violence, Republicans largely said the status quo was sufficient.

Details about the shooting are still emerging, and the suspect remained at large as of Thursday evening.

As reported by NPR, Maine has relatively few restrictions on gun ownership, and “people age 21 and over don’t need to get a permit before buying, possessing or carrying a rifle like the one reportedly used in the Lewiston mass shooting.”

The state does have a “yellow flag law” that’s meant to keep guns away from people who could harm themselves or others, with some limitations.

“Unlike the red flag laws that are in effect in roughly 20 states, Maine's yellow flag law does not allow family members to directly petition a judge to order someone to temporarily give up their guns and prohibit them from acquiring new firearms,” Maine Public reported earlier this year. “Only police can issue a request.”

New Hampshire does not have a similar law, nor does it require concealed carry or open carry permits for people who are legally allowed to possess firearms. The state also does not require a waiting period for gun purchases. There is no minimum age for possessing a gun in New Hampshire, though federal law prohibits anyone under 18 from possessing a handgun (though not rifles or shotguns).

As lawmakers gathered at the State House to vote on several unrelated bills Thursday, House Speaker Sherman Packard said “what happened [in Maine] was horrible,” but not cause for gun reform.

“I think our policies in the state are fine,” he said, declining to elaborate further. “It was horrible, It shouldn’t have happened, and I hope they get to the bottom of it.”

Rep. Bob Lynn, a Republican from Windham, called the situation in Lewiston “a terrible tragedy” but said it didn’t change his mind about gun policy.

“The problem is not the gun,” Lynn said Thursday in between votes at the State House. “The problem is the person.”

He said the solution isn’t to enact more gun laws, it’s to enforce existing regulations more effectively.

“If you look around the country, there are a lot of gun laws at both the federal level and the state level,” Lynn said. “And part of the problem, I think, is that they're not often enforced strictly the way they should be.”

A former chief justice on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, Lynn has been a vocal supporter of gun rights since joining the Legislature — including backing a 2022 law that aims to block enforcement of some federal gun laws.

Lynn and other Republicans, including Sen. Kevin Avard of Nashua, also called for more emphasis on mental health in the wake of the latest mass shooting.

“If people want to kill, they’re going to find a way to do it,” Avard said. “I think restricting individuals from the ability to protect themselves is not the answer. I think addressing mental illness is part of the solution.”

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne declined to comment on the shooting in Maine. His Democratic counterpart, House Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm, said the Maine shooting underscored the need for stricter gun laws.

“While we know the commonsense policy solutions required to end this epidemic, elected representatives too often lack the political courage to do the right thing and take action to save lives,” Wilhelm said in an emailed statement. “We can do better — and we must.”

Rep. Allison Knab, a Democrat from Stratham, said requiring permits for concealed carry and implementing red flag laws could be places to start.

“People always say New Hampshire is really safe because this hasn't happened here,” Knab said. “But it just happened in Maine, you know? So nowhere is safe, I think, from gun violence in this country anymore. And I think we could really do a lot to improve the gun laws we have in our state.”

Her colleague, Bethlehem Rep. Jared Sullivan, also a Democrat, called for a more robust federal response.

“I would love to say that if we pass really strict gun laws in New Hampshire, it would work,” Sullivan said. “I think it really has to be a federal thing, because we have very porous borders within our own states, and so it'd be really easy to go from one state to another.”

Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat from Concord who formerly served as House Speaker, said he’s watching mass shootings happen more frequently. He said requiring more training for those who want to purchase a firearm, checking for a history of mental illness, and putting more money into mental health programs could all help prevent future tragedies.

“I’m a former member of the NRA. I own firearms. I used to hunt. But something’s got to be done, enough is enough,” he said. “I’m not for gun control, but I am for gun regulation. And we need more regulation in our state, but more importantly, across the country.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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