The Granite State has an extensive history with personal firearms. And its laws reflect the state’s long-held attitudes about guns and the 2nd Amendment.
Earlier this year, the annual gun show at Manchester’s Radisson Expo Center saw record turnout with more than 1,000 tickets sold.
Guns are popular, and in the Live-Free-or-Die state, laws governing the sale and possession of firearms are minimalist by any standard.
Charles Putnam is a professor at UNH and the Co-Director of Justiceworks, a criminal justice research institute. He says it’s not uncommon for relatively rural states to be more lax in their gun laws. But, he says, New Hampshire’s politics play a big part as well.
“There’s a strong political culture on both the left and the right, I think, to minimize the intrusion of government into peoples personal lives. And so I do tend to see the state of our firearms regulations as being consistent with that somewhat libertarian tradition.”
Today in New Hampshire, you don’t need a permit to buy or open-carry a gun. Only to carry a handgun loaded and concealed.
But you can trace the state’s first gun-related law back to 1909. It was about a single page in length and simply required a license to carry small concealed weapons including handguns. After WWI, the legislature repealed that law but in 1923 it was essentially restored with an act to control the possession, sale, and use of pistols and revolvers. New Hampshire’s present-day statute evolved from that law over the past 90 years.
“Well I think back in the nineteen twenties, y’know there was a proliferation of guns on the street and of course we had reached the era of prohibition where there was a lot of crime.”
Earl Sweeney is New Hampshire’s Assistant Safety Commissioner. He says that handguns, given their small size, were seen as potentially more dangerous than rifles.
“I think the legislature particularly carved out hand guns because they were so easily concealable. You had no warning, no indication that anyone was carrying one until they suddenly produced it. And so I would imagine that was the rationale the legislature used.”
All the while, the state’s constitution which harkens back to 1784, made no mention of the right to bear arms.
But that changed as differing interpretations of the U.S. constitution’s 2nd amendment triggered debate. It became increasingly clear that a right that was originally taken for granted, might not be protected at the state or local level.
So, in 1982 New Hampshire added a constitutional amendment to its own bill of rights.
And that’s what State Representative Al Baldasaro read out loud at a gun rally in front of the State House in January.
“‘All persons have the right to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves, their families, their property and the state.’ It’s written there. This is the bible. This is what we comply with.”
Former State Representative Crow Dickinson was a prime sponsor for the amendment. He says the protections afforded by it were long overdue.
“And here we had the state of New Hampshire, we had the right to revolution and all kinds of other rights, but we had no right to bear arms. It’s all fine and dandy having a right to revolution but what are you gonna do? Beat everyone with a stick?”
That amendment did go a long way in making the personality of our laws very different from our neighbor to the south. At the S.L. Gun Shop, on the state line in Mason, owner Paul Gauffin says about 60% of his business comes from Massachusetts.
“…That’s a half-scale of the one that was hanging from the ceiling and it fires .22 caliber cartridges.” (.10)
Massachusetts residents need a permit to own a gun, but if you’re a New Hampshire resident, you can just show up at a gun store, like I did.
RL: “I would like to get a handgun. What do I need to do first.”
PG: “So we’d probably recommend something like a revolver for example in your case since you’re a relatively novice shooter.”
RL: “Ok, so let’s say I want the revolver that you recommended. At that point, I pay you for it?”
PG: “Well, before that… we got a few more things to do.”
RL: “I’m getting ahead of myself.”
PG: “You’re getting a head of yourself a little bit. First thing we’d do would be to have you fill out the federal paperwork and I’ll get one of those forms…”
“…So here we have the ATF Form 44-73. And this is an across-the-counter firearms transfer form.”
“…You answer these questions. These are all affidavit questions. It’s a federal felony to lie on a form.”
RL: “Ok, so this first one says ‘Are you the actual transferee. Oh, the buyer.”
PG: “In other words, is the gun for you.”
RL: “In other words, I’m not getting it for anyone else.”
PG: “That’s correct. Ok, you check off yes. And you go on to answer the rest of these questions. All of these are lifelong disqualifiers from possessing firearms.”
Not a convicted felon, check. Not a fugitive from justice, check. Not an expatriate, check. Not mentally ill, check.
If I were really buying a gun, Gauffin would then call the State Police, where they have four clerks on staff to do background checks. If I try to buy a long gun, a semi-automatic rifle or any other kind of gun for that matter, he would call the federal gun line for the background check.
“Typically between 15 minutes and an hour goes by and they call us back and give us one of three responses. Either approved, delayed or denied.”
The State Police says only about 1-2% are denied. This past December broke the state record for highest number of background checks in a month and January saw the most checks done on a single day.
Note: Charles Putnam is a professor of justice studies at UNH proper and a former prosecutor. He is not affiliated with the UNH School of Law.