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Panel sinks gun ban at State House

Last modified: 1/5/2011 12:00:00 AM
A legislative committee voted yesterday to repeal the ban on carrying guns in the State House.

The 10 Republicans on the Joint Legislative Facilities Committee voted to repeal the ban in the State House complex; the only dissenter was Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat.

The repeal 'will restore Second Amendment rights to the people of New Hampshire in what we've come to recognize as the people's house,' said House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Salem Republican.

The House will vote today on whether to remove a separate ban on carrying guns into the House chamber.

The ban on carrying deadly weapons in the State House, Legislative Office Building and Upham Walker House was implemented by the facilities committee, then led by Democrats, in December 2009. It had previously been in effect from 1996 to 2006. The ban stated that only law enforcement personnel on active duty could carry deadly weapons. After Republicans complained that the ban was enacted at a meeting with no public notice, the committee reconsidered the ban - and passed it again - the following month.

The committee yesterday repealed the ban and reverted to language that was in effect in 2006. The rule now states only that security and enforcement of laws and rules within the House and Senate chambers, galleries and anterooms will be up to the Sergeants-at-Arms. Enforcement of laws and rules for the rest of the State House complex will be the responsibility of the chief of protective services and the state police.

The vote followed nearly an hour of testimony on both sides of the issue - but many committee members made their pro-gun views known early on.

After Carol Backus of Manchester testified that she had safety concerns about allowing guns in the same place as schoolchildren, committee member Sen. Tom De Blois, a Manchester Republican, questioned whether forbidding guns was actually safer.

'Is there a police officer . . . in the room right now?' he asked. When no one came forward, De Blois asked Backus, 'If a gunman walked through the door right now with every one of us unarmed, how many of us would escape?'

Those who testified for keeping the gun ban said they were worried about the safety of legislators, staff and schoolchildren. Several supporters mentioned an incident in March 2009 when armed and angry constituents started yelling at House members from the gallery.

Former representative Valerie Hardy, a Litchfield Democrat, said lawmakers were worried about the outbreak in the gallery. She cited another case when people who came to testify at a hearing were too intimidated to testify because a man sitting in the hearing was openly handling a gun.

'There's too much violence in this world, and bringing guns into our General Court is not a good thing,' Hardy said.

Hardy listed several shootings that took place in colleges, shopping malls and city meetings. She and others noted that New Hampshire already forbids guns in courts, while federal law forbids guns in schools.

'We don't allow guns in the other courts in New Hampshire. I don't see why we need to allow guns in this court,' Hardy said.

Backus, who retired from a job with the state educators union, said more than 17,000 schoolchildren visit the State House each year, many of them fourth-graders.

'Gun ownership rights under the Second Amendment are not absolute rights,' Backus said. 'They can and should be regulated to make the seat of state government safe for students, elected officials and the public.'

But opponents of the gun ban said giving people the right to defend themselves would make the State House safer. They said many of the people murdered in mass shootings have been in gun-free locations.

Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, said he had been caught in the middle of gunfire twice as a restaurant and bar owner in Massachusetts, where he was prohibited from carrying a gun.

As a veteran, Baldasaro said he knows how to shoot.

'If I had a gun on me, the two people who got shot in the restaurant would never have been shot,' Baldasaro said.

'A gun-free zone, if you wake up and smell the coffee, is a killing zone,' Baldasaro said. 'The only one who carries a gun in those gun-free zones is a criminal.'

Several representatives stressed their constitutional right to bear arms. Rep. Susan DeLemus, a Rochester Republican and certified pistol instructor, said she feels unsafe walking from the State House to the Storrs Street parking garage without her gun.

'I want to be able to bear arms and defend myself,' DeLemus said.

House Speaker William O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican who chaired the facilities committee meeting, said the repeal 'rights a serious wrong that was both procedurally wrong and a violation of members' and the public's constitutional rights to protection and to bear arms.'

Larsen said the Legislature should be addressing economic issues, not the gun ban.

'Because of the economic constraints the state has been under, this will be a difficult (session) with passion, disappointments and defeats, perhaps not a good environment for level-headed discussion,' Larsen said. 'But our job is to promote civil discourse, not to allow civil disruption within our chamber.'

House Minority Leader Terie Norelli was unable to attend the meeting and asked O'Brien to appoint Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat who previously chaired the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, in her place. O'Brien instead chose Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat who was unable to attend the meeting, leaving House Democrats without representation.

Shurtleff said the Democratic caucus was disappointed O'Brien broke with a tradition of allowing the leader of a party whose member is absent to choose a replacement.

Former representative Anthony DiFruscia, a Windham Republican, said some ban supporters are considering bringing a lawsuit to fight the repeal. DiFruscia said ban supporters could argue, based on the equal protection clause of the Constitution, that the ban is discriminatory, since people walking into a courthouse are protected from guns, while people walking into the State House are not.

House chamber ban

While the committee vote repeals the ban in the State House complex, there is still a long-standing rule prohibiting anyone but active law enforcement from carrying deadly weapons in the House chamber, including the gallery, anterooms, cloakrooms and adjacent areas.

Today, the House will vote whether to lift that ban as well. O'Brien has proposed a rule change that would prohibit displaying a weapon in those locations but would allow for concealed carry.

In an informal session with legislators yesterday explaining the proposed rules, O'Brien said the change was a compromise.

'The intent is . . . to allow all of us to have an opportunity for self-defense and the protection of others without interrupting the decorum of the House,' O'Brien said.

The proposal drew criticism from those who believe it goes too far and those who believe it does not go far enough.

'I believe we never and should not compromise with the constitutions of New Hampshire or the U.S., and we are compromising,' said Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican.

Burt said he would not carry openly out of respect for House decorum, but he believes spectators in the gallery should be able to display firearms. Burt said he worries about a slippery slope if the House bans the display of weapons.

'What will be next? The rest areas? Other state buildings?' Burt said.

Rep. Mark Warden, a Manchester Republican, said some representatives were talking about introducing an amendment to allow weapons to be carried openly in the House gallery.

Rep. Donna Schlachman, an Exeter Democrat, urged lawmakers to consider public safety.

'I'm concerned about balancing that constitutional right of open carry with the fact that our gallery is a place where young kids come,' Schlachman said.

Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. Gary Richardson of Hopkinton said he anticipates Democrats will vote against the change.

'The idea that people can bring firearms into the gallery when we have fourth-grade students is unbelievable,' Richardson said. 'As a parent, I wouldn't let my kids come to the State House if we have people in the gallery with weapons.'

'The State House has limited security that can't possibly control armed, angry people,' Richardson added.

O'Brien, defending the compromise, said he believed allowing legislators and others to carry weapons will make the State House safer by giving individuals the ability to protect themselves.

'Having an armed population allows us to be safe,' O'Brien said.

He said he respects the concerns about restricting constitutional rights, but he compared it to the restriction on yelling fire in a crowded theater.

'We believe this is a reasonable restriction on the right to bear arms, to keep decorum in the House, so that people can be comfortable with being present in the House,' O'Brien said.

O'Brien also proposed several unrelated rules changes. Two changes would make it harder for legislators to impose new taxes and fees. One proposed rule says the House will not accept any committee of conference report that increases or adds a new tax or fee, which has not received a public hearing and a full vote of the House. The rules also state that a bill cannot be put on the consent calendar, a list of noncontroversial bills passed by voice vote, if it has a fiscal impact.

'It's intended to prevent the shenanigans we've seen in the past,' O'Brien said, referring to the passage of a tax on campgrounds and an extension of the interest and dividends tax late at night by a committee of conference. 'If we're going to increase taxes and fees, which we're not, you'll know about it.'

O'Brien is taking away the Local and Regulated Revenues Committee, while adding committees to review the constitutionality of proposed bills, to recodify state statutes and to handle petitions for the redress of grievances. There will be special committees to handle redistricting, education reform and pension reform.

One proposed new rule states that no committee shall give a positive recommendation on any bill that would violate the New Hampshire Constitution or the U.S. Constitution.

Another rule states that no committee shall give a positive recommendation to any bill that grants broad rulemaking authority to any agency or department.

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


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