By Dave Solomon

Anyone who legally owns a gun can now carry it in a concealed fashion without a permit from their local police chief, thanks to Senate Bill 12, signed into law on Wednesday by Gov. Chris Sununu.

The battle over constitutional carry, or concealed carry, has been waged in the State House on and off for the past three decades.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sununu, as he fulfilled a campaign promise before a crowd of supportive citizens and lawmakers gathered in Executive Council chambers.

"SB12 ensures New Hampshire citizens are guaranteed the fundamental right to carry a firearm in defense of themselves and their families, as prescribed by our state constitution," he said.

"This is about safety. This is about making sure that the laws on our books are keeping people safe while remaining true to the Live Free or Die spirit that makes New Hampshire the great state that it is."

The bill passed the House by a wide, bipartisan margin, 200-97. The 13-10 vote in the Senate was along party lines, with Democrat opposed.

Concealed carry was before the Legislature for the third time in three sessions. The past two attempts passed with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan. And those were only the most recent attempts.

"We've been working on this for 28 years," said Republican Executive Councilor David Wheeler of Milford, who as a state representative sponsored some of the earliest versions of concealed-carry legislation.

His son, an attorney, drafted much of the language in the bill that was signed into law on Wednesday.

Gun rights advocates have been frustrated in their efforts to change New Hampshire law throughout the gubernatorial terms of Democrats John Lynch and Maggie Hassan. During the two-year term of Republican Gov. Craig Benson, from 2003-2005, they succeeded with three bills.

One law eliminated manufacturer liability, protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits; another protected gun clubs and firing ranges from being shut down by neighborhood complaints if the range was there before the neighbors; and a third gave the state exclusive power to regulate firearms or ammunition, preempting any existing local ordinances or attempts to pass new ones.

Michelle Levell, chair of the Women's Defense League of N.H., couldn't be on hand for Wednesday's bill signing, but members of the organization held up a picture of the gun-rights activist who worked for years on the legislation.

"She's worked so hard for this moment, we wanted her to be here today," said Susan Olsen, director of legislation for the organization.

Sununu called the bill "common sense legislation" that aligns New Hampshire's concealed-carry laws with that of neighboring Vermont and Maine.

New Hampshire now joins 11 other states that allow concealed carry without an additional permit: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Vermont, Wyoming and West Virginia.

Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said the law will make it harder for law enforcement to "keep track of guns that fall into the wrong hands." The previous law gave police chiefs the power to deny a concealed-carry permit to anyone they deemed "unsuitable."

That criteria gave local and state police too much freedom to act arbitrarily in denying someone their constitutional rights, according to the bill's supporters.

SB 12 is the first bill signed into law by the newly elected governor. Opponents argued that the existing system had worked well for years, and there was no need for the change.

"New Hampshire has imminent issues that need the governor's attention, but further relaxing the state's notoriously lax gun laws is not one of them," said Buckley. "The vast majority of Granite Staters support common sense reforms like background checks and it is those reforms that will make us safer, not more accessibility."

Republican Party Chairman Jeanie Forrester said Sununu made clear during the campaign that signing concealed carry would be one of his first acts upon taking office.

"He's holding true to that commitment," she said. "This new law secures our constitutional rights, catches us up with our neighbor states and makes it easier for people to defend their lives and property."

(c)2017 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)