House votes to bar guns from chamber, gallery despite GOP opposition

Last modified: 2/26/2013 10:15:19 AM
The Democratic-controlled House yesterday voted to bar concealed weapons from its chamber, while Republicans protested that the gun ban would leave lawmakers unable to defend themselves and others.

“If we become a gun-free zone, we are telling every nut in this state that we are sitting ducks. And when seconds count, the police are only minutes away,” said Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican. “We have a constitutional right to protect ourselves, and I wish to do that.”

On the first day of the 2013 legislative session, the House voted 196-153 to change its rules to prohibit carrying deadly weapons on the floor and in the gallery, anterooms and cloakrooms. A similar ban had been on the books for decades until Republicans lifted it two years ago after winning big majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Democrats won back the House in November. Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, said yesterday he was concerned about fourth-graders on class trips to the State House seeing a gun on the floor because someone accidentally dropped it.

“I can only imagine the fear and trepidation that goes through that child’s heart, and folks, that just isn’t right,” Shurtleff said. “This is the seat of our state government but it’s also a classroom for all of our citizens, and that’s why I support the ban on weapons in this House.”

Yesterday’s vote came after about 2½ hours of debate, interrupted by a lunch break. GOP lawmakers complained that banning concealed weapons from the chamber is unenforceable. Some said the ban violates the right to bear arms guaranteed in the state Constitution. Others complained that the state’s definition of “deadly weapons” is vague and could mean anything from a gun or knife to a pen or credit card, depending on its user’s intent.

“A holstered gun is not a deadly weapon. . . . But anything can be used as a deadly weapon. A credit card can be used to cut somebody’s throat,” said Rep. Dan Dumaine, an Auburn Republican.

Rep. Bill O’Brien, the Mont Vernon Republican who lost his job as speaker when Democrats retook the House, called the ban a “feel-good measure” that “makes us less safe.”

Addressing new Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, O’Brien added, “After your promises . . . to concentrate on the budget, jobs and the economy, the first bit of significant legislation you bring forward is this radical gun-control legislation.”

But Democratic leaders called the ban a common-sense safety measure.

“The thought that some representative would return fire to the gallery, where we have fourth-graders, frightens me. . . . I think we have to impose limits on carrying guns in this hall and in the gallery, just as we do in our courthouses and other places,” said Hopkinton Rep. Gary Richardson, a member of the House Rules Committee and the Democrats’ floor leader.

Richardson suggested one change to the rule as it had been proposed, striking language that applied the ban to “adjacent areas” of the State House and adding language that the ban applies to the House gallery. That amendment passed on a 271-102 vote.

Several Republican attempts to modify or block the gun ban failed. Dunbarton Republican Rep. JR Hoell tried to table the measure, but his motion failed on a 205-161 vote. Burt, the Goffstown representative, offered an amendment that would allow people with legal permits to carry a concealed handgun into the chamber, but it died on a 209-156 vote.

And Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk offered an amendment that would require at least one armed person to be in the gallery and a second on the floor to protect lawmakers while the House is in session. It too died, on a 247-117 vote.

Following the final vote, many Republican representatives filed formal written protests calling it “unconstitutional and unconscionable.” Hoell said most of the 179-member Republican caucus filed copies of the letter, but Minority Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett said the action wasn’t organized by caucus leaders.

Chandler said he didn’t file a written protest, though he said he didn’t disagree with the protests that were filed. He spoke out against the gun ban during a House Rules Committee meeting last month but didn’t speak on the House floor yesterday.

Committees killed

Among other changes to its rules approved yesterday, the House voted 226-147 to eliminate two committees that were formed two years ago: the Redress of Grievances Committee and the Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification Committee.

The redress committee became a lightning rod in the last session as it heard more than two dozen citizen complaints, most from people unhappy with the outcomes of family-court cases. Supporters said the panel’s hearings uncovered real problems with state government, but critics called it a sort of kangaroo court.

Richardson called the committee’s hearings “a gigantic waste of time for us” that sucked lawmakers into complex and emotionally charged family disputes.

“The Constitution guarantees a right to petition the Legislature, but it doesn’t guarantee a right to a hearing or anything else,” Richardson said. “And the thought that we would be forced to hold public hearings and go through agony and putting families who have already been through a contentious divorce through it again, hearing only one side of the story, is just wrong.”

But Republican Reps. Pam Tucker of Greenland and Al Baldasaro of Londonderry both argued that the committee provided a venue for valid complaints from low-income New Hampshire residents who can’t afford to continue their court fights.

“Our laws are here to protect everyone, and I urge you to vote against this change in the rule and let all of the people, regardless of their income levels, have a voice in our government,” Tucker said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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