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Update: Students urge N.H. Senate to allow gun-free school zones; proposal dies

  • Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, shakes hands with Nino Tomas, a senior at Concord High School advocating for a bill to allow gun-free school zones in New Hampshire. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

  • Students from Concord High School meet outside the New Hampshire Senate chambers to advocate for legislation allowing gun-free school zones. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Concord High School seniors Nino Tomas (left) and Jonathan Weinberg watch from the gallery as senators take up a bill to allow for gun-free zones in New Hampshire. The measured failed along party lines, 14-9. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/21/2018 2:28:38 PM

The New Hampshire Senate voted down a proposal to allow for gun-free school zones in the state Wednesday, ending a last-minute attempt by Democrats to change the Granite State’s gun laws after a recent wave of mass shootings.

In a 14-9 vote along party lines, the chamber rejected a proposal by Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, to give individual school boards the power to impose firearms bans in lieu of a broader state law. Hennesey’s proposal, added as an amendment to an existing bill, was presented as a means for local school boards to make decisions on weapons policy.

But Republican senators said the bill was an inappropriate transfer of power to localities, which could create discrepancies between towns and erode public safety.

“The designation of a gun-free school zone hasn’t been particularly effective,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “I wish it were. If I thought it was, I’d join my colleague from Hanover.”

The vote signals the end of the last effort toward gun control legislation in the Legislature this year. And it came as local students, driven by a recent national movement, rallied behind the law. A Valentine’s Day mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 students and teachers dead, has galvanized young activists to press for stronger gun laws.

On Wednesday, a group of students from area high schools thronged the State House halls, waving signs as senators entered the chamber.

Katie Henry, a senior at Concord High School, said the bill was about peace of mind.

“For me, it just means clarifying that I deserve to be safe when I’m getting my education, and I have my right to my education and to be safe while I’m getting it,” she said.

Against a charged backdrop, debate on the Senate floor took a sometimes emotional flavor. Hennessey said the amendment was created with the well-being of children in mind. And she linked opposition to the bill to influence by the National Rifle Association, forcefully pushing back against what she said were misconceptions.

“What it does is it brings local control,” she said. “What it does not do – but what it has been accused of doing over and over again – it does not take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Period. It does not do that. You can say it, but it doesn’t make it so.”

Sens. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, and Jay Kahn, D-Keene, read letters from students urging change. Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, railed against a “one-size-fits-all” policy for guns in schools. And Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, took a personal route, mentioning his granddaughter, a nurse in the Concord school system.

“I don’t think study commissions are going to cut it,” Kahn said. “Students are asking for actions.”

But Democrats weren’t the only ones invoking personal experience. Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, said his own high school-aged daughter favored the idea of allowing law-abiding citizens to carry weapons to prevent school attacks.

“She felt that she would be safer if there were trained staff members,” he said.

And Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, brought up a searing connection of his own: his nephew and godson, 14 and 16, attending a school close to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – the site of the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting. Their school was placed on lockdown after a firearm discharged near campus; they hid in a closet and texted Sanborn’s relatives.

But Sanborn said the experience drove home the need for more defensive firearms on school grounds, not fewer. The path forward, he said, is enhanced security – no different than the metal detectors common to stadiums and concert venues.

“I am dumbfounded that in our society today, we accept and encourage armed guards standing in banks, protecting our money ... but we argue about whether the single most precious asset we have on earth – our children – should be protected or not,” he said.

For the amendment, it was a vote in some ways predetermined, after the Senate Education Committee voted it down last week on party lines. Hennessey and other Democrats were merely seeking to resurrect it Wednesday.

But for the students in attendance, the bill’s fate came as an emotional jolt. Many said their efforts at activism had fallen at an already stressful time of year – SAT tests for some, college decisions for others. After the vote, some left the Senate chambers with tears in their eyes.

“It was obviously pretty disappointing, but not really shocking,” Henry said. “It felt like they hadn’t thought about the issue since Sandy Hook. It felt like they hadn’t thought about us.”

For her part, Henessey vowed to continue pressing for a gun control platform through the election season, even if support for it in an independent, “Live Free or Die”-minded state appeared dim.

Still, Sophie Johnson, a Concord High senior who got permission to skip her Wednesday afternoon Latin class, said she had a game plan of her own.

“I have hope and faith, and if it’s not this, this year, maybe I’ll run for office” she said.




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