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Aug. 11—Gov. Chris Sununu picked sides in a controversial battle between leading gun rights groups Tuesday, vetoing legislation he said was "ceding control" of criminal background checks to the federal government.
The legislation (SB 141) would have dismantled the State Police Gun Line office and had all future background checks for handgun purchases conducted through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS).
"This bill would create substantial, unintended negative consequences by ceding control of our state process to the federal government," Sununu said in his veto message.
Sununu also vetoed a second bill (HB 334) that would have made it legal for those riding a snowmobile or an off-highway recreational vehicle (OHRV) to carry a loaded pistol or revolver without a license.
In June, lawmakers backing the Gun Line change added it to this second bill to improve its chances of becoming law.
"It is unfortunate that the Legislature chose to tack on unrelated legislation that will cause those provisions to not move forward," Sununu said.
Sununu's vetoes attracted the strong support of a diverse group ranging from Attorney General John Formella and the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition to the judicial branch and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
"The state's current background check system provides the necessary safeguards to ensure that dangerous abusers will not have access to firearms that can be used to kill their victims. Victim safety must remain paramount when considering any changes to our background check system in New Hampshire," said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Some of the nation's most powerful gun groups had lined up in favor of the change, including the National Rifle Association and the National Sports Shooting Foundation. Several gun dealers spoke on its behalf, as did officials with Sig Sauer, the state's largest gun manufacturer.
"Governor Sununu has turned his back on firearms owners and dealers and now has more in common with (gun control advocate) Gabby Giffords than he does any legitimate firearms organization in this state," said Alan Rice of Bedford, state director of Gun Owners of America, another group that pushed for the bill.
Gun Line born in '98
The State Police has managed this job in New Hampshire since 1998, after the federal Brady Act mandated background checks nationwide for all handguns bought at firearm stores.
Supporters of the change said legal gun purchasers were waiting weeks and often longer for their applications to be processed.
Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn admitted the Gun Line went through a rocky period in 2019-20, when the agency couldn't keep up with a flood of gun purchase requests while dealing with the fallout from COVID-19.
In 2020, the number of gun purchase applications in New Hampshire went up 63%, while Quinn's staff was depleted by the pandemic.
"It was essentially a perfect storm," he said.
Since last January, Quinn said the state has erased the backlog and reduced the amount of time it's taken to process these requests.
"This bill, which was introduced to solve a problem caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is no longer necessary," Sununu said.
Gun Line supporters said the state system is more extensive than the FBI check and denies purchases by those who face restraining orders for domestic violence or stalking.
Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, and a co-founder of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, had urged Sununu to veto the bill.
"Gun Line performance through the end of July has shown that it has three times fewer delays than the FBI reports when they do checks," Wheeler said. "The Gun Line is no longer broke."
Critics cite lawsuit
Rice maintained the Gun Line for the past two decades has been less efficient than the FBI system.
"I think it's completely disingenuous for the governor to blame this on the pandemic," Rice said
He noted state Gun Line executives are parties to a lawsuit by two Manchester police officers who were shot in 2016 by Ian MacPherson, who was able to buy a handgun despite a history of mental illness.
MacPherson bought the weapon six weeks before the shooting, after officials at Chester Arms, a Derry gun dealer, approved it because the Gun Line failed to act within three business days as required.
The Gun Line ultimately denied the permit a year later, in March 2017, the same day MacPherson was indicted for the shooting.
"The Chester Arms case tells you everything you need to know about the Gun Line and how well it's been working over the years," Rice said.
Ironically, Sununu is likely to have both vetoes sustained on the votes of Democratic lawmakers who support gun control.
Every Senate Democrat and all but a handful of House Democrats had opposed both these bills.
Both measures failed to pass either the House or Senate by a veto-proof majority.
Legislative leaders have discussed bringing lawmakers back in September for a single day to take up Sununu's vetoes.