After hospital shooting, N.H. lawmakers consider bills to restrict, expand access to guns

Politics

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held public hearings on half a dozen bills.

A police officer manning a roadblock talks with an employee of New Hampshire Hospital who was trying to get to work, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Concord, N.H. A shooter killed one person Friday in the lobby of the psychiatric hospital and then was fatally shot by a state trooper, officials said. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The associate medical director of New Hampshire Hospital urged lawmakers to pass gun control legislation Friday, describing the anguish that followed the fatal shooting of a security officer in the facility’s lobby last year.

“A coworker was murdered 100 feet from my office,” Dr. Samantha Swetter told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “Then I had to sit there while other people I loved were in danger, and I could do very little to help them.”

The committee was holding public hearings on half a dozen bills seeking to either restrict or expand access to firearms, including one drafted in response to the death of Bradley Haas, who was killed in November by a former patient at the psychiatric hospital in Concord.

While federal law prohibits those who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions from purchasing guns, New Hampshire currently does not submit mental health records to the database that gun dealers use for background checks. “Bradley’s Law,” which has bipartisan support, would require those records to be submitted. It also creates a process by which someone could have their gun ownership rights restored when they are no longer a danger to themselves or others.

Swetter, speaking on behalf of the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society, described hearing a scream and then being told about the shooting by a worker who ran into her office and hid behind the door. She then spent an hour trying to call different departments because the hospital’s paging system wasn’t working.

“These people aren’t just people I work with, they’re my family, and I couldn’t tell them that they were in danger,” she said. “It was genuinely one of the worst moments of my life, just not being able to protect people. I’m a health care professional to help people, and I couldn’t.”

The gunman who killed Haas was shot to death by a state trooper assigned to the hospital. Haas was unarmed, and opponents of the bill argued having such workers carrying guns would save more lives than restricting others’ access. One opponent suggested that the bill could apply to those hospitalized for bulimia or other mental health conditions, while others argued it would do nothing to stop criminals from getting guns.

“If someone is violently mentally ill, why would they be even released from a secure mental health facility?” said Kimberly Morin of the Women’s Defense League. “Rather than pushing more discriminatory gun confiscation bills, why don’t we actually do something to address the serious mental health issues we have?”

The committee also held public hearings on a bill that would make it easier for gun owners to store their guns in their cars at work and another that could make it easier for those who are subject to domestic violence protective orders to get their weapons back. It also heard testimony on a bill to create a process by which gun owners could voluntarily add themselves to the federal background check database. Supporters said it could help someone who had considered suicide in the past and wants to protect themselves going forward.

“By taking this simple step, we can take the quickest, the deadliest in our state and the most common form of suicide off the table for people who simply go the extra step of asking us to take it off the table,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth.

Donna Morin, whose 21-year-old son died by suicide in 2022, told the committee the bill would not have saved his life, but it could save her own.

“The pain that I feel every single day, it has brought me to thoughts of suicide,” said Morin, of Manchester. “I’m speaking publicly about this, even though it’s terrifying, because I really feel that this bill is that important. The goal of this bill is to allow a person like myself to make a decision when they are in a calm mind and not in emotional distress.”

Morin compared it to creating a living will to outline treatment preferences in end-of-life situations when you can’t speak for yourself.

“You’re asking what kind of person would do it? It would be me,” she said. “I don’t want to have a moment of weakness where I can’t see that life’s not worth living, because it is.”