Editorial: N.H. gun regulations should be tightened

Published: 12-03-2023 7:00 AM

Bradley Haas, the unarmed security guard who was shot and killed in the lobby at New Hampshire’s state psychiatric hospital on Nov. 17, has been hailed as a hero by Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General John Formella. While he was all of that, Haas may also have been a victim of a tragic flaw in the state’s system of firearms regulations, one that Sununu and Formella should seek to remedy.

The gunman, who was killed immediately by an on-duty state trooper providing security at the hospital, has been identified as John Madore, a troubled 33-year-old who was armed with a 9mm handgun. A U-Haul van that Madore had rented was found in the hospital parking lot containing an AR-style semiautomatic rifle, a tactical vest and ammunition. So it is reasonable to assume that Haas and the state trooper did indeed prevent the loss of many more lives.

Court records cited by the New Hampshire Bulletin indicate that Madore suffered bouts of severe mental illness over the years and was subject to an involuntary emergency admission to New Hampshire Hospital after being arrested in 2016 in connection with a disturbance at his mother’s home in Strafford, N.H. He was also prohibited from possessing firearms at that point. A 9mm pistol and an assault rifle confiscated from him at that time remain in the custody of the Strafford police department.

How Madore obtained the weapons he took with him to the state hospital on Nov. 17 probably won’t be known definitively until the authorities complete their investigation. Federal law generally prohibits possession of firearms by those who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility after being deemed a danger to themselves or others. But it does not require states to report individuals subject to involuntary mental health commitments to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) maintained by the FBI, which federally licensed firearms dealers use to determine eligibility to purchase guns. And New Hampshire does not do so.

In fact, in 2016, the Legislature enacted a Medicaid expansion bill that included a provision prohibiting anyone from submitting to the background check system the name of any individual who has become prohibited under federal law from possessing a firearm due to mental illness, “except pursuant to a court order issued following a hearing in which the person participated and was represented by an attorney.”

According to the InDepthNH news site, in 2016 then-Attorney General Joseph Foster sought to have the courts report to the NICS those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility; found not guilty by reason of insanity; or found incompetent to stand trial and ordered to a mental health facility. The judicial system declined on the grounds that the state law was unclear; InDepthNH reports that Formella is now revisiting the issue.

As well he should. Absent an entry into the national database, the only thing licensed gun dealers have to go on is a box on the mandatory firearms transaction form asking buyers, among other things, whether they have ever been committed to a mental institution. If they answer “no,” then the sale can go through.

Assuming that the Legislature acted in good faith to protect the privacy of mental health records and the due process rights of those who possess firearms, it seems clear that some remedy is needed that requires reporting to the NICS of those who pose a threat to themselves or others. Even if further investigation shows that Madore did not obtain his weapons legally from a federally licensed firearms dealer, it appears that he could have done so because of this reporting loophole.

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Sununu, who has repeatedly assured the public over the years that New Hampshire’s existing gun laws are adequate, has now asked for and received recommendations from the Department of Safety on how to enhance security at the state hospital and at all state buildings. That’s as it should be, but as part of that process, the governor should also join Formella in reassessing the state’s position on background checks reporting.