Opinion: Can Lewiston happen here?


Published: 11-04-2023 6:00 AM

Representative Marjorie Smith lives in Durham.

The shocking events in Lewiston will take a while to process. I’m not interested in assessing blame because that will not bring back to life the family, friends and neighbors who were gunned down. What I want to focus on is what we can do to try to prevent such carnage from happening here. There are myriad steps we could take. Here is just one example.

In the spring of 2023, I was the prime sponsor of HB 59, an act requiring a background check prior to any commercial firearm sale. The bill was defeated by the NH House of Representatives by a vote of 197-175.

“Guns don’t kill people. People do.” This phrase, first used in the early part of the twentieth century, was later made popular by the NRA. Today it’s a cliché, the implications of which many people doubt. But for the purpose of this bill concerning background checks prior to any commercial firearm sale, let’s accept the phrase as a truism.

HB 59 addressed not the gun, but the person who chooses to purchase the gun. And that is probably why 93% of the American public favors background checks for gun purchases. That includes just under 90% of gun owners, and just under 90% of Republicans. These figures hold for New Hampshire, which makes it very difficult to understand why so many of our elected representatives have not supported the wishes of the majority of those who elect us.

I am not an expert on guns. But I do know a fair amount about people, most of them, including overwhelmingly gun owners, believe in gun safety. This bill is to protect us from those few who purchase and misuse guns for reasons that no responsible gun owner or caring citizen would support: to harm others and perhaps to harm themselves.

Never having purchased a gun, I was interested to learn how easy it would be to purchase a gun legally. There are nearly 59,000 unique gun dealers across the country, four times as many as there are McDonald’s and nearly twice as many as U.S. post offices. Gun owners who buy a gun from a dealer know how easy the background check is. In this state and almost every other state, no one lives more than 10 miles from a licensed firearm dealer.

This bill required commercial firearms sales in New Hampshire to be processed through a licensed firearms dealer, who would conduct a background check and create a record of each sale. Its purpose is to protect public safety by helping to keep firearms out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, and those adjudicated to be mentally ill.

This bill closed what is referred to as the Charleston loophole. Under federal law, a licensed dealer may proceed with the sale of a firearm after three business days even if the mandated background check has not yet been completed and there’s been no confirmation that the purchaser is legally permitted to have guns. The perpetrator of the Charleston church shooting, who was legally prohibited from having guns, was able to use this loophole to purchase the gun he used in that tragedy before the background check was completed. This bill would have closed the “Charleston loophole” in New Hampshire by providing law enforcement officials sufficient time to complete a background check on a prospective purchaser to ensure that prohibited people cannot purchase firearms in New Hampshire

In a recent conversation I had with one of my colleagues, he talked about wanting to give his son a gun, knowing he had trained his child about gun safety including responsible use and storage. This bill would not have interfered with that in any way. And it is not only relatives. As long as the gun owner knows that the potential recipient is not prohibited under federal or state law to own a gun, the exchange is legal.

Background checks make sense, they use existing systems that are familiar to legal gun purchasers, and they save lives.

This is one example of steps that the NH Legislature could take to prevent the Lewiston tragedy from happening here. But in order for these changes to come to New Hampshire, voters will have to make clear to elected officials and to future candidates that responsible gun ownership matters to them, and to our children and grandchildren.

Keeping silent is not an option, and what’s more, it never was.