NH Supreme Court Interprets Meaning of "Loaded Pistol" for Concealed Carry Law

The Manchester Police charged defendant for knowingly carrying a "loaded pistol" in his car's glove box without a valid license, in violation of RSA 159:4, the "concealed carry" law. NH is a State where anyone who is not otherwise prohibited by law from carrying weapons, can openly carry a loaded handgun (pistol or revolver) on her person. If you want to conceal the loaded handgun, e.g., carry it in your glove compartment, you need to obtain a license.

The defendant thought it would be safe to carry an empty handgun (no cartridge in the chamber, no magazine or clip attached), with the magazine containing ammunition detached from the handgun. The Manchester Police disagreed and arrested the defendant, contending that the definition of a "loaded" handgun includes a handgun that is NEAR the ammunition.

Yes, the government's argument was that "loaded" means "not loaded." This is a reminder that aggressive prosecutors will argue aggressive or even outlandish interpretations of the law, all in the name of public safety.

While the trial court refused to answer the question, the NH Supreme Court rejected this argument and held that to be a "loaded pistol or revolver," the gun actually has to be loaded. While the prosecutor claimed that criminalizing the carrying of concealed "loaded" firearms that are not actually loaded would further public safety, the Court responded with a great quote from the US Supreme Court: "it frustrates rather than effectuates legislative intent simplistically to assume that whatever furthers the statute’s primary objective must be the law.” Rodriguez v. United States, 480 U.S. 522, 525 (1987).

However, the Court did not define "loaded" in the most narrow sense (cartridge must be in the chamber), but instead held that "loaded" means a "pistol or revolver containing a cylinder, magazine, or clip with a cartridge that can be discharged through the normal operation of the firearm." That means that if the magazine or clip is attached and there is at least one cartridge in there, you can't carry it concealed without a license.

The moral of the story is somewhat dispiriting: To get out from under a criminal prosecution in New Hampshire, even when the law clearly does not cover the conduct of the accused, a person may have to go all the way to the State's highest Court for relief.

Read State v. Dor