Students speak for gun-free zone bill


  • Concord High School senior Jonathan Weinberg talks about a rally in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Friday in Concord on Feb. 23, 2018. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

It wasn’t Parkland, Fla., that taught Jonathan Weinberg about the terror of guns in schools. It was Burlington, Vt.

A decade ago, as an elementary school student at the Orchard School in South Burlington, Weinberg and fellow students faced a lockdown. An armed person had walked onto campus, Weinberg recalled. The students hunkered down in silence. The person was apprehended without any harm, but Weinberg carried the memories for years.

On Tuesday, Weinberg, now a senior at Concord High, spoke before the Senate Education Committee to advocate for legislation he says would reduce those fears. A Democrat-led amendment to a school safety bill would permit school boards to impose “gun-free zones” on school grounds, allowing for local policies to be set in lieu of state law.

“This is not a matter of limiting anyone’s Second Amendment right. It is a conversation about how to create a safe learning environment for students and children,” he said.

Submitted by Sen. Martha Hennessey in the wake of February’s school shooting in Florida, the proposed amendment is a last-ditch effort by New Hampshire Democrats to tighten gun laws. Weinberg and some other students and parents say the shooting, which killed 17 people at a high school, has spotlighted the need for action in Granite State schools.

“School used to be a place where I felt safe, but now it is becoming a place of uneasiness,” said Jennifer White, a junior at Hopkinton High School, speaking in support of the bill.

Susan Ford, a retired school administrator from Easton, said the bill would allow schools to craft policies to their needs.

“If I had my druthers as an administrator, I would want it on a local basis,” Ford said. “I would want an opportunity to talk to the parents, to the students.”

But the bill faces strong pushback from gun rights groups, who say giving school districts leeway to determine gun policy would create a patchwork system for gun owners. Those who drive cars with firearms inside, for instance, could have difficulty picking children up from school, some said.

“Nothing in this amendment will make our school safer,” said Mitch Kopacz, president of Gun Owners of New Hampshire. “Nothing will stop crazy people from doing crazy and bad things. This is a gun ban, pure and simple.”

And outside the room, the opposition is hard to discount. Two hundred emails were sent to the committee objecting to the amendment; 32 were sent in support, according to Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield. In early February, a bill with similar language was sent by the House into interim study, 239-71, effectively halting its advance.

Reagan, himself a member of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, said the language was wishful thinking.

“It sounds wonderful, but it’s not protecting the children,” he said.

Rather, he said, continuing to allow lawful gun owners to carry concealed weapons on school grounds would be a more effective deterrent.

“I’m in favor of a lunatic thinking that they don’t know who’s armed and who isn’t,” he said.

Hennessey acknowledged opposition from gun rights advocates, but said any fears over gun control miss the point of the proposed bill.

“My amendment is simply about school boards having local control over their schools,” she said. “Being allowed to make rules about what can happen in their school buildings and in their buses.”

Members of the Education Committee are set to vote Wednesday afternoon on whether to add the amendment to the underlying bill.

Despite dissenting views from gun owners, Weinberg said he and other students are undeterred. High school students across the state and the country are planning to participate in walkouts Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., featuring 17 minutes of silence for each Parkland victim killed.

“Too many students have become accustomed to lockdowns and active shooter drills,” he said. “Too many teachers have used themselves as human shields to protect the students they love.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)