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New majority's first action: Guns welcome

Last modified: 1/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
Keep those guns holstered.

In its first official legislative action, the Republican-led New Hampshire House voted yesterday to allow concealed weapons in the House chamber, gallery and anterooms. Though lawmakers and spectators will not be allowed to display their weapons in the chamber, out of concern for House decorum, the vote overturned a long-standing rule against carrying guns in the chamber.

"The right to carry and bear arms is a constitutional right, it's an individual right, and we shall be allowed to protect ourselves on the House floor," said House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Salem Republican.

The vote came one day after a legislative committee allowed guns in the rest of the State House complex. By yesterday morning, signs on the State House doors banning food, smoking, pets and guns had already been altered, with someone tearing off the symbol banning guns.

Yesterday, the discussion centered on whether to repeal the ban in the gallery, where visitors sit, as well as in the House chamber, where lawmakers sit. Assistant Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook proposed an amendment that would allow guns on the House floor, but not in the gallery.

Shurtleff, a former U.S. marshal, said 27,000 students visit the State House each year, many of them fourth-graders.

"Most of these young people, what they know about guns is what they see on TV and movies, which is mostly negative," Shurtleff said. "We do have the right to bear arms, but it's also the right of those young people to come in here and see us at work, to be able to sit in the gallery and not feel fear or intimidation."

But Deputy Majority Leader Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican, said students come to the State House to learn the traditions of the state.

"This is an open-carry state," Jasper said. "It is important that the students understand that it is part of our proud tradition, that people have the right to defend themselves, and if they see a gun . . . they need to understand that's not something to be afraid of."

Jasper said the public should have the same rights in the gallery as representatives have on the House floor.

Shurtleff's motion failed, 274-96. The new House rules, including the repeal of the gun ban, passed on a voice vote.

Republicans have a 297-102 majority in the House.

There was also some controversy over a new committee to address citizens' petitions for redress of grievances, which was created to comply with a constitutional requirement. The committee will review citizens' complaints against government and determine whether they merit legislation. According to the new rules, the committee chairman - Pike Republican Paul Ingbretson - will determine whether any petition will be subject to a public hearing.

House Speaker William O'Brien said the screening process is a safety valve to avoid publicly airing sensitive issues such as child custody or allegations of deviant behavior.

Assistant Democratic Leader Gary Richardson of Hopkinton said the rule would set a dangerous precedent by giving a committee chairman power to veto something that should come before the entire House.

"It would be ironic if the first act of this Legislature in forming a new committee was an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of citizens to petition the Legislature for a redress of grievances," Richardson said.

Jasper responded that previously, petitions were tabled with no consideration, and allowing all petitions to be debated by the House would take too much time.

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)


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