In N.H., candidates pushing for constitutional carry

Last modified: 10/19/2014 11:25:49 PM
The owner of the Boscawen pizza parlor looked uncomfortably at the handgun strapped to Robert Forsythe’s hip.

The gun was legal, Forsythe told him reassuringly. A Republican candidate for a House seat in Merrimack County District 8, Forsythe – who pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon without a permit earlier this year – has campaigned almost entirely on Second Amendment issues.

“Sometimes,” he said, when asked whether people get nervous around the gun or question him about it. “They never say anything, really.” If they do, it’s usually a chance for him to educate them about existing gun laws.

The gun is legal because New Hampshire has long been an open carry state, where residents can carry a handgun without a permit as long as it’s visible. After his arrest, Forsythe got his concealed weapon permit, which allows him to carry the gun hidden from view or with him in a car – something that isn’t legal under the open carry law.

The focus of Forsythe’s campaign is something candidates expect will create controversy during the next legislative session: the prospect of “constitutional carry.” Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona and Vermont are among the states that have constitutional carry, in which a government-issued license to carry isn’t mandated.

“I would co-sponsor constitutional carry, and if I can’t push that through, I’ll at least try to sponsor legislation to allow loaded rifles in cars. Nobody ever uses a rifle in road rage,” said Forsythe, a 32-year-old former U.S. Army medic.

Issues such as the economy, Medicaid expansion and Northern Pass are secondary to Second Amendment issues for Forsythe, and he isn’t shy about it.

“It’s been proven many times . . . the more armed citizens you have, the safer you are,” Forsythe said.

The gun-regulation divide surfaced again recently after the state Department of Safety’s changes to the concealed carry license application prompted pushback from gun-rights activists. Constitutional carry discussions will be taken up this next session, said Pat Sullivan, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

“This keeps rearing its head in many different forms,” Sullivan said. “What we have currently works, and if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.”

Constitutional carry discussion at the State House started in earnest in 2004, when the first bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. Similar legislation has been mulled during other sessions, including a 2011 bill that passed the House. That same year, a Republican majority pushed through legislation to allow guns in the State House and Legislative Office Building. The House banned guns again in 2013, but not before a state representative attracted national headlines after dropping his gun on the House floor during a committee hearing.

Someone in the House will introduce legislation related to constitutional carry this session, said state Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican running a campaign heavy on Second Amendment issues. A group of lawmakers are trying to fine-tune language and sort out sponsors, he said.

“This is something that’s been talked about for a number of years, and it’s time to pass it,” Hoell said. The constitutional carry bill “basically says, ‘You don’t need to beg permission from the government to carry a concealed weapon,’ ” he said.

Hoell, through his work on the New Hampshire Gun Coalition, said the issue hasn’t been widely discussed during this campaign season. “This isn’t an issue that is going to put someone in office. This may or may not break a very close race,” he said. “The other issues at hand right now are purely economic and job related, but this does have some significant impact on that.”

If passed, a constitutional carry law would still ban felons from possessing firearms.

Whether the Legislature could actually push through a form of constitutional carry largely depends on the governor.

“It really is a function of who is governor. Gov. Hassan will likely veto any pro-Second Amendment legislation,” Hoell said.

In an interview with the Monitor last week, Hassan said she supports Second Amendment rights, but stopped short of saying she’d sign the bill into law.

“I think people have a Second Amendment right to own weapons and defend themselves and understand that people enjoy the recreation of hunting, and so I think it’s really important as we respect that right to also think about ways consistent with the Second Amendment rights where we can make our communities safer,” she said.

And if a constitutional carry bill made its way to her desk?

“I will always review any bill that comes to my desk,” she said.

But Walt Havenstein, her Republican challenger for governor, said he supports the idea of constitutional carry. “I think because the Constitution allows that, and not only allows that, it is a right,” Havenstein said. Havenstein criticized the recent changes by the Department of Safety while saying he’d want a broad dialogue before making the change.

“And frankly for me it hasn’t been something I’ve thought about all my life, but, you know, as I think about it I think about the underlying constitutional premise of that, and I support it,” he said.

Under state law, carrying a handgun on a motorcycle is a misdemeanor, an offense that candidate Forsythe pleaded guilty to earlier this year. He was sentenced to six months of good behavior and fined more than $1,200 after the police officer who pulled him over for driving his motorcycle with a suspended license found a .38 special partially concealed by his sweatshirt. The arrest was the result of the police’s interpretation of the law, Forsythe said.

“According to some interpretations it is illegal, because they consider the Harley a vehicle even though it’s a bike,” he said.

He has since gotten a concealed-weapon permit, which he keeps in his wallet. “I put my jacket over the handle so not enough was showing that it was open. He said it was completely covered. Those things are always open to interpretation.”

(Reporter Casey McDermott contributed to this story. Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @iainwilsoncm.)

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