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Gun bills require further study

Last modified: 1/27/2012 12:00:00 AM
Two controversial gun bills, including one that would allow guns on campus, could be headed to the "interim study" graveyard.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard four hours of testimony from supporters and critics yesterday then voted 4-0 to recommend the two bills be further studied because members had so many questions.

Sen. Jim Forsythe, a Strafford Republican, had to leave the hearing early and did not vote.

The second bill would allow people to carry almost-loaded shotguns and rifles in their vehicles. A bullet could be in the gun's magazine but not in the chamber.

The full Senate must still act on the committee's recommendation. If a majority of senators agree to send the bills to study, they could very well stay there for the rest of the session without a vote.

One of the bills' co-sponsors, Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, was not happy after the hearing. "I think they are effectively killing these bills," he said. "And I think the people in New Hampshire who care about their Second Amendment rights are going to be disappointed with their votes."

The committee did not vote on the third bill, which would make gun licenses optional, but still can. Hoell said he suspects that bill faces the same fate, and that particularly upset him, he said, because last year the committee said it would support gun legislation if the major gun rights groups in the state could agree on language.

The groups' representatives said yesterday they did agree on the wording of the gun license bill.

"Given what I saw they did on the other bills, I suspect they are going to either water it down and cause the gun groups to fight (with each other), or kill it," Hoell said. "They promised to pass language if we were in agreement, and now they are promise-breakers."

After the vote, Sen. Matthew Houde, a Plainfield Democrat who chairs the committee, explained the votes this way: "I think the issue is that the bills raise some serious questions and concerns for the committee members."

The committee, which also includes Republican Sens. Jim Luther of Hollis, Sharon Carson of Londonderry and Fenton Groen of Rochester, raised several questions during the hearing yesterday.

Groen said he was struggling to balance the tension raised by the bill that would prevent college and state agency officials from banning guns on their properties. Under the bill, only the Legislature could set gun restrictions on property owned by the state or paid for with state money.

"Our Constitution says we all have the right to bear arms," Groen said. "Are we following the Constitution or are we saying in this case it doesn't apply on a university campus? I haven't come to a firm decision where I am on that, but I feel the tension."

Several college and police officials and one parent of a freshman at the University of New Hampshire said allowing guns on campuses would end in tragedy.

"I don't think it's wise or prudent to have a campus with (college students) who are in an experimental state who make mistakes and who use drugs . . .(and) add guns," said UNH police Chief Paul Dean. "To openly carry guns is creating more of a risk."

But nearly as many people spoke for the bill.

Republican Rep. Elaine Swinford of Barnstead, who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the bill had been well vetted by the House. She didn't share Dean's safety concern.

"In our university system we have a lot of students from New Hampshire and most of them have grown up around firearms," she said. "They have great respect for them. They would not use them, in my opinion, wrong."

The second bill, which would allow nearly-loaded rifles and shotguns in vehicles, drew many of the same speakers. After the hearing, the committee members said testimony about state Fish and Game policing especially concerned them.

Gun-owner rights groups complained that under the current law conservation officers too often "dupe" hunters into a violation by approaching them as they are outside their vehicle and readying their equipment to hunt.

If the hunter rests a loaded gun on a vehicle to speak with the conservation officer, they can be cited for violating the law. Kevin Jordan of the state Fish and Game Department testified yesterday that conservation officers rarely issue citations. Instead, he said, they issue warnings or just tell the hunter why it's dangerous to rest a loaded gun on a vehicle.

But Christoper Leone of Gun Owners of New Hampshire said statistics from Fish and Game dispute that. Between 2005 and 2009, the department issued far more summonses than warnings, he said.

In 2005, the department gave no warnings and 47 summons, according to the figures Leone cited. In 2009, officers issued eight warnings and 41 summonses.

Carson said after the hearing she'd like to further investigate that complaint.

The final bill, which would make gun licenses optional, divided the room along the same lines, with gun rights advocates citing constitutional rights and the police arguing safety concerns.

Houde said he did not yet know when that bill may come up for a vote by the committee.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com)


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