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State, gun shop aren't liable in 2016 police officer shooting, NH Supreme Court says

A display case at a New Hampshire gun shop
NHPR file photo
A display case at a New Hampshire gun shop

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

House members will be asked Friday to support a bill that would make certain mental health records available for background checks during a gun purchase. Lawmakers from both parties argue the bill would make the state safer by prohibiting people from buying firearms if their mental illness makes them dangerous.

A recent state Supreme Court opinion stemming from a nonfatal shooting of two police officers in 2016 illustrates the limits and challenges that will remain should the legislation, House Bill 1711, pass. At the center is Ian MacPherson, whose past includes domestic violence charges, commitments to mental health hospitals, and questions about his competency.

None of that prohibited him from legally buying a gun, the court ruled.

MacPherson purchased a gun in April 2016 and shot two Manchester police officers several weeks later.

Ahead of the shooting, his family had told the police that he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had “displayed on many occasions delusional behavior which should serve as a significant concern should he obtain a firearm,” according to the court’s ruling.

The family’s safety concerns are not grounds under state or federal law to confiscate a person’s guns or prevent them from buying a firearm. A so-called “yellow flag” bill that would have allowed his family or household member to ask a court to restrict access to firearms passed the House in 2020 but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Sen. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat, has reintroduced similar legislation, Senate Bill 360, this session. It has not yet been voted on.

In 2012, MacPherson’s attorney asked that he be evaluated for competency after he assaulted his father. A psychologist concluded MacPherson was competent to stand trial, during which he pleaded guilty.

That case also did not prohibit MacPherson from buying a gun, the court ruled, because he was not deemed by the court as a “mental defective” or committed to a psychiatric facility, as required by federal law.

In 2007, MacPherson was the subject of a petition for involuntary emergency admission in New Hampshire.

A police officer and a justice of the peace said they believed MacPherson should be subject to a compulsory mental examination, according to the court ruling. A physician who evaluated MacPherson determined that he posed a likelihood of danger to himself or others.

Following a weekend stay at the New Hampshire Hospital, MacPherson was discharged on the day of a probable cause hearing, during which a judge must determine whether someone’s condition warrants ongoing involuntary admission.

Neither the involuntary admission petition nor weekend stay prohibited MacPherson from buying a gun, the court ruled, because there was no evidence the court ordered him committed to the psychiatric hospital.

In 2014, MacPherson was voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. The records in that case showed that his medical providers raised concerns that MacPherson posed a danger to himself, according to the court ruling.

That hospitalization also did not prohibit MacPherson from buying a gun because his admission was voluntary, nor ordered by the court or other official authority.

MacPherson was charged with two counts of attempted capital murder for shooting the two police officers. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in 2018 and was sentenced to at least the next five years in a secure psychiatric facility, according to media reports.

MacPherson’s case was before the state Supreme Court because the two officers sued the gun shop that sold MacPherson the gun while the Department of Safety’s Gun Line was still checking his eligibility to buy a gun. They also sued the Gun Line.

The court concluded neither were liable. The justices found the Gun Line did not err because nothing in MacPherson’s past disqualified him from purchasing a gun. The gun dealer, Chester Arms, was immune under state law, the justices wrote, even though MacPherson went on to commit criminal acts with the gun they sold him.

Rep. David Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat, who is co-sponsoring the bill adding mental health records to background checks, has introduced legislation that would repeal the law that makes gun dealers immune. House Bill 1037, which mirrors legislation that has failed in previous sessions, has not been voted on yet.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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