CONCORD, N.H. — Revelations about the warning signs that preceded the devastating Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, have prompted political leaders in New Hampshire to revisit questions about the adequacy of New Hampshire’s gun laws, particularly in cases involving dire mental health concerns.
Democratic candidates for governor called for New Hampshire to enact a variety of gun-related measures, including a “red flag” law, so judges can temporarily disarm those who pose a danger to themselves or others. Republican candidates, meanwhile, said investing in mental health services and vigorously enforcing existing gun laws is the best course.
Their policy preferences, though familiar, took on a fresh urgency after the Lewiston tragedy, which now ranks among the 10 deadliest shootings in US history.
Army reservist Robert R. Card II, who killed 18 people and wounded many more before ending his own life, had been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital this summer. His family warned authorities in recent months that he had grown increasingly paranoid as he stockpiled guns, and a colleague told law enforcement he feared Card would “snap and commit a mass shooting.”
Still, authorities didn’t use Maine’s so-called “yellow flag” law to seize Card’s guns. The law, which took effect in 2020 as the unique result of a legislative compromise, is more restrained than the “red flag” laws that have been enacted in more than 20 other states, including Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
Maine’s law allows a judge to restrict an individual’s access to weapons if police take the person into protective custody and believe they are a risk to themselves or others because of an acute mental health crisis. A mental health provider must conduct an assessment before a Maine judge can issue an extreme risk protection order under the state’s law.
The broader laws in place in other states generally don’t require protective custody or a medical assessment to seek judicial intervention, and some allow family members to petition a judge directly without involving police.
In New Hampshire, the only state in New England without either a red or yellow flag law, lawmakers have tried repeatedly to enact such a measure. They passed a red flag bill in 2020, when Democrats held majorities in both legislative chambers, but Republican Governor Chris Sununu vetoed the measure, saying it went “too far” and would curtail Second Amendment rights.
“This bill could lead to situations where law-abiding Granite Staters have their property seized with no notice or opportunity to speak in their own defense,” Sununu wrote in his veto message. “The lack of due process in this legislation is antithetical to the New Hampshire and American tradition.”
The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety disputed Sununu’s veto message, contending that the legislation included “robust due process protections” like those that have been tested and deemed constitutional in other states.
Republicans have held majorities in both the New Hampshire House and Senate since 2021, and subsequent efforts to pass a red flag bill have failed.
While the prospect of a red flag law has near-universal support among Democrats in New Hampshire (98 percent), it also has support from majorities of independents (78 percent) and Republicans (51 percent) in the state as well, according to a February poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. That includes support from 72 percent of gun-owning households.
One of the Republicans running for governor, former New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse, said he has opposed broad red flag policies because they don’t address the root causes of violence and typically encroach on individual rights.
“Progressive Democrats have the same knee-jerk reaction to everything: Create more laws to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Morse said.
“To prevent such devastating incidents in the future, our primary focus must be on ensuring people receive the mental health care they need,” he added.
Another Republican in the race, former US senator Kelly Ayotte, similarly emphasized mental health.
“As a former murder prosecutor, I believe our gun laws should be vigorously enforced,” Ayotte said. “However, at the core of these mass shootings are mental health issues, and we need to come together to ensure there is early intervention and action to protect the public and provide help to those struggling with mental illness.”
A spokesperson for Ayotte did not respond when the Globe asked whether Ayotte would be open to signing a red flag bill to help facilitate that early intervention.
One of the Democrats running for governor, Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, said red flag laws can be enacted and enforced in a manner consistent with the Constitution.
“I believe in the Second Amendment,” Warmington said. “I also believe that we can balance the rights to protect our communities with the rights of responsible gun owners, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Another Democrat in the race, Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, said there hasn’t been enough urgency at the state level. She touted her mayoral administration’s gun violence reduction strategies in the city and said, as governor, she would partner with police on gun control policies to limit the potential for mass shootings.
Warmington and Craig each called for the state to reinstate concealed-carry permits, impose a waiting period for gun purchases, declare K-12 schools “gun-free zones,” and ban the sale of assault-style weapons. They also faulted Ayotte for her record of blocking what they each called “common-sense” gun legislation.
“After the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, when 20 children were killed in a mass shooting, Kelly Ayotte voted against a bipartisan universal background check law,” Craig said. “We cannot trust her with the health and safety of our children and our families.”
Ayotte objected to the politicization of the Lewiston shooting.
“It’s disgraceful that my opponents are using this horrific situation to launch political attacks,” she said.
Ayotte and Morse have each called for strong enforcement of existing laws to ensure that people who are prohibited from owning guns can’t get them. Under existing federal law, those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, as Card was, are already prohibited from buying or possessing any firearm or ammunition.
But information about involuntary commitments doesn’t flow freely from New Hampshire to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which firearms sellers use to verify a buyer’s eligibility.
“So if someone does have an involuntary commitment in New Hampshire, then it will most likely not show up in NICS,” said Susan Stearns, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Hampshire.
Policymakers at the federal level and in other states have been wrestling for years with gaps in the NICS data. In 2013, Ayotte penned an op-ed that cited a need to ensure NICS includes information about “mental health adjudications where an individual is found to be a danger to themselves and others.”
In 2016, New Hampshire enacted a law that requires New Hampshire courts to send certain mental health adjudication information to NICS. But the state also enacted a law in 2022 that prohibits state and local officials from cooperating with the enforcement of any federal law or presidential order that’s inconsistent with state law with regard to firearm regulations.
If state law is silent on a topic, then it’s considered inconsistent with federal law, according to the 2022 legislation. New Hampshire doesn’t have a law on the possession of firearms by mentally ill persons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Morse voted in favor of the 2022 bill, and Sununu signed it into law.
While the NAMI New Hampshire team has supported efforts to enact a red flag law in the state, Stearns said the organization has expressed a need for caution when it comes to reporting mental health data to NICS, considering the risks of penalizing people for receiving the health care services they needed.
“Should you lose a constitutional right in perpetuity because you had a health crisis — which is what we’re talking about — and required treatment, albeit against your will?” Stearns said. “Because there are people who go through that process and then engage in treatment and go on to live full lives in their community without being a danger to themselves or others.”
With or without a law for extreme risk protection orders, New Hampshire should keep working to ensure individuals and communities have the mental health care support they need, Stearns said.
More information about how to initiate an involuntary emergency admission is available on the NAMI New Hampshire website, and the state’s rapid response line is available 24/7 by calling or texting 833-710-6477.
Globe staffer Amanda Gokee contributed to this report. Material from prior Globe stories was included in this report.