When the National Rifle Association meets in Indianapolis this weekend for its three-day confab, the headlines will likely be dominated by former President Donald Trump and his most high-profile potential 2024 challenger, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.)
But the event’s biggest political opportunity may belong to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. The purple-state Republican rarely campaigns on cultural and social issues, preferring to focus on low taxes, economic growth, and government accountability. But when it comes to protecting the rights of gun owners, Sununu arguably has the strongest record of any potential candidate in the GOP field.
As a result, gun rights could be the issue that lets Sununu connect with conservative activists in the GOP base.
“New Hampshire has a long and proud tradition of responsible firearms stewardship, and the governor looks forward to traveling to Indianapolis to share New Hampshire’s success story,” a Sununu spokesperson told NHJournal.
Kimberly Morin, who heads the Women’s Defense League of New Hampshire, is a conservative activist who isn’t hesitant to criticize Sununu from the right. But she admits, “Sununu has been very good on the Second Amendment.”
“The first bill he signed when he became governor was ‘constitutional carry.’ He also blocked draconian red flag laws pushed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, whose organization spent hundreds of thousands to get it passed when we had a Democrat-controlled legislature. Sununu deserves much credit for all of this,” Morin said.
“Constitutional carry” is the phrase used by Second Amendment advocates for allowing lawful gun owners to openly carry their handguns in public without an additional license or permit. And while New Hampshire has a longstanding culture of gun ownership and light regulation, constitutional carry did not become law until Sununu took office in 2017.
“This is about safety; this is about making sure that our laws on our books are keeping people safe while remaining true to that ‘live free or die’ spirit that makes New Hampshire the great state that it is,” Sununu said when he signed the law.
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a reputation as a Republican culture warrior, on the Second Amendment he’s riding in Sununu’s wake.
Last week DeSantis signed a “permitless carry” bill giving residents the right to carry a concealed loaded weapon without a permit. Some gun rights advocates distinguish the Florida proposal from “constitutional carry” because it does not allow for the open display of firearms. DeSantis supports open carry, and it’s possible he may bring the legislature back into session in an attempt to pass it. Politico reports that GOP leadership in the Florida state Senate is not on board, however.
They also quote gun rights activist Matt Collins calling DeSantis “weak” if he can’t get open carry passed. “It’s embarrassing for him. It’s failed leadership and hurts his chances in the upcoming presidential primary.”
And while some MAGA Republicans mock Sununu as a moderate “squish,” it was Donald Trump who issued a federal ban on gun stocks — a ban overturned by the courts earlier this year. And in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. mass shooting, President Trump voiced support for confiscating guns from certain individuals deemed to be dangerous, even if it violates due process rights.
“I like taking the guns early, like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida … to go to court would have taken a long time,” Trump said at a meeting with lawmakers on school safety and gun violence. “Take the guns first, go through due process second,” Trump added.
Not so with Sununu.
In 2020, Sununu vetoed a so-called “red flag” bill passed by the then Democrat-controlled legislature. It would have given family members or police the ability to petition a court to confiscate firearms from people they believed might be a danger to themselves. Second Amendment advocates called it an “unconstitutional, gun-grabbing bill” that would “turn due process rights upside down.” In his veto message, Sununu said he agreed.
“I will continue to prioritize suicide prevention and mental health as there is much work yet to be done in New Hampshire. But that work cannot come at the expense of the constitutional rights of our citizens.”
However, noted JR Hoell with the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, Sununu began that session by expressing his openness to an eldercare red flag law.
“NHFC opposed that alternative as well as all of the other ‘risk protection order’ type bills that trample due process in an effort to take firearms from people,” Hoell said. “After the backlash, the bill was pulled from the governor’s website.”
Perhaps Sununu’s boldest decision was to sign last year’s GOP-backed law “prohibiting the state from enforcing any federal statute, regulation, or presidential executive order that restricts or regulates the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” It was pushed by Granite State gun rights advocates concerned about efforts by the federal government, from both the Trump and Biden administrations, to expand gun control at the state level.
New Hampshire Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the legislation, accusing Sununu of “making it more difficult for law enforcement to work with the FBI, ATF, and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and bring justice to crime victims in New Hampshire,” then-House Democratic Caucus Leader David Cote (D-Nashua) said at the time.
Sununu, a pro-choice Republican who has attempted to avoid many culture war debates, did not back down.
“New Hampshire has a proud tradition of responsible firearms stewardship, and I’ve long said that I’m not looking to make any changes to our laws,” he said in his signing statement. “This bill will ensure that New Hampshire’s law enforcement efforts will be on our own state firearms laws – and that’s where I believe their focus should be.”
Sununu supporters say his record on the Second Amendment is an opening he can use to connect with the party base that is largely unmotivated by messages like fiscal management and electability. It shows both his conservative bona fides and his willingness to fight.
Sununu’s challenger in last year’s governor’s race, state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye), made Sununu’s gun policies a fundamental part of his campaign, penning an op-ed for the Union Leader headlined, “I’ll Be a Governor Who Stands Up To Gun Lobby.”
“Sununu has already had the chance to sign common-sense gun safety measures into law, but instead, he’s weakened protections for our communities and our police officers,” Sherman wrote. “Sununu vetoed a bill that would close loopholes in our background check laws to make sure guns don’t get into the hands of people who should never have them. He vetoed a bill that would have required a three-day waiting period before purchasing a gun.”
Sherman lost to Sununu by 15 points.
Other speakers scheduled to participate in the NRA event include potential 2024 presidential candidates Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R).