Governor put gun lobby ahead of New Hampshire seniors

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Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of House Bill 696, a new bill passed with bipartisan support in order to protect seniors from elder abuse, warrants special mention among the many bills he has vetoed, improvidently.

It warrants special mention because our population is aging, we face special problems responding to the needs of seniors and none of the reasons the governor gave for vetoing the bill made sense.

The record instead indicates that the governor lined up with the gun lobby against seniors. This is no El Paso and Dayton, but it is a capitulation by the governor that will have its victims in New Hampshire, even if he recaptures reason and changes positions next term.

By then, time will be lost and seniors will have suffered without the protections HB 696 could have provided.

HB 696 sought to implement a procedure by which vulnerable individuals, and the state even, could obtain protective relief from courts in New Hampshire against elder abuse. The relief looked like the sort victims of domestic violence may get in court.

However, the statute focused on the special vulnerabilities of seniors, which are often distinct from others victimized by domestic abuse. These vulnerabilities include the documented risks to seniors targeted by predators for financial exploitation.

HB 696 was shepherded by AARP and New Hampshire Legal Assistance, as well as other organizations focused on the needs of seniors. Each has a special perspective on the needs of seniors as a result of years of work in the area. The bill had support from politicians of such disparate views as Renny Cushing, a House Democrat, and Sharon Carson, a Senate Republican. No government agency opposed it. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald raised no red flags about it in the legislative history. No objection came from public health.

Instead, the consortium of organizations that sought to defeat the bill were gun rights groups such as the NRA, which called it dangerous, and other more minor gun rights lobbyists. None has any special expertise in the area of elder abuse. None of the claims these organizations made were credible.

I have litigated these issues as a prosecutor and in private practice. One of my most disturbing cases as a homicide prosecutor in New Hampshire involved a murder for hire (by gun violence) coordinated by violent people to cover up the financial exploitation of an elderly man (State v. Saunders). Had HB 696 been in place then, perhaps the government could have prevented that catastrophe before it happened.

As a private lawyer who has practiced in our probate courts since that case and has read and studied the law of undue influence and seniors, I have wondered why the state has been so passive in protecting seniors through a more specialized protective statute.

As we all read about Portsmouth police officers taking advantage of an elderly woman in the Webber case, for instance, one of a series of cases presenting facts the likes of which we will only see more of as baby boomers reach retirement and beyond, I imagined the law would not lag so far behind our needs.

This term the Legislature appeared sensitized to these problems. HB 696 passed with substantial bipartisan support. Gov. Sununu then vetoed the bill, issuing a statement that subverted the interests of senior victims while giving voice to the most expansive definition of gun rights. He did so within days of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton and as we watched the news about a shooting in our state that a Weare police officer thankfully survived.

Indeed, the governor claimed that HB 696 raised Second Amendment concerns without citing law or examples and even though its provisions do not target the guns of users as aggressively as the standing domestic violence statute.

His other claims had no greater merit.

Among his more unbelievable reasons, he claimed that the bill risked creating confusion for other victims of domestic violence that judicial officers could not address. The governor either ignored or did not understand that judicial officers are required to assist in addressing confused litigants as matter of our law.

The Judicial Branch’s Domestic Violence Protocols, for instance, provide public advice on domestic violence cases already. Court staff also routinely assists pro se litigants (and others) in identifying proper forms.

And of course we have multiple ways pro se litigants can access attorney advice, including through public interest law firms and pro bono legal services (another reason to support these organizations whose budgets the governor tried to demolish).

The governor claimed that the bill would harm seniors because it would close off other relief now available. This fact must have come as a surprise to AARP. The bill says that it supplements other available remedies by its terms.

The governor’s communication staff then tweeted that their concerns were supported by the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. That organization, which is dependent upon the governor for appropriations and political support, confirmed that fact by tweet. If that organization provided the rationale for the veto, it has (once again) badly harmed its credibility in regard to victims’ rights by undermining efforts to protect N.H. victims by law.

What’s left from this record is the conclusion that the whole result was driven by the gun lobby and the governor’s desire to appease it. If that’s the case, then citizens have a right to consider and reflect on those priorities.

Gun rights are constitutional but they are not absolute. Seniors, in particular, should demand an accounting about the governor’s subversion of their interests to gun owners who have acted violently toward them. Whether we are committed to protecting seniors from exploitation and abuse swings in the balance and must be weighed against baseless and paranoid concerns about the regulation of guns in New Hampshire.

(Michael S. Lewis is a Concord attorney.)

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