Vandals key cars outside NHGOP event at Concord High; attendee carrying gun draws heat from school board

A party delegate from Claremont documents a key scratch on the driver’s side of his vehicle outside the NHGOP convention Saturday at Concord High.

A party delegate from Claremont documents a key scratch on the driver’s side of his vehicle outside the NHGOP convention Saturday at Concord High. Courtesy of New Hampshire Republican Party

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 04-15-2024 4:17 PM

Modified: 04-16-2024 12:08 PM


Vandals keyed the cars of at least 10 members of the state Republican Party while the group held its biennial convention inside Concord High School on Saturday.

“There’s already too much vitriol in partisan politics,” Party Chair Chris Ager said. Ager said he had heard of as many as two dozen attendees, all parked together, who said they had found key scratches on their cars. “Any acts of violence, or vandalism or vitriol on either side, I don’t think, helps the people of New Hampshire.”

Ten people have reported to Concord Police that their cars were vandalized outside the event, according to Deputy Chief John Thomas. Police believe all were attendees of the GOP convention, though the incident is still under investigation.

“People should be able to go to an event and not be victims of this kind of crime,” Thomas said. Damage to attendees’ cars would total in the thousands of dollars, he said, “and for what?”

The district agreed to provide Concord Police with any relevant surveillance footage, said Superintendent Kathleen Murphy, adding that car vandalism has not been an issue at Concord High.

Praising the district’s hospitality and the police, Ager said that Concord High was otherwise a great location for the convention, where the party sets its platform and selects its delegates for the national presidential nominating convention. Gov. Chris Sununu and the Republicans vying to replace him, former Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Senate President Chuck Morse, were headliners.

Meanwhile, Concord Police separately responded to the school during the convention to provide extra security for middle and high school-aged students competing in a Geography Bee — several students had seen an attendee of the convention carrying a firearm and reported it to staff, according to Murphy.

Students were in the east side of the school while the event, in the auditorium, was on the west side, Murphy said. But the reports she received of weapons was “concerning,” and the district requested a police presence to help reassure students.

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“Some worried a little bit, having seen what they saw, and so we did ask for some police presence,” Murphy said.

At the request of the district, the attendee was asked by event staff to lock the gun in his car and, according to Ager, and he did so without protest.

“At no time was anybody at risk of anything,” Ager said. “It was handled in a very friendly, mature kind of fashion.”

The party was aware there may have been some district guidelines about firearms in the space, “which any venue has a right to do,” Ager said, but attendees were not asked in advance not to bring them. The convention is usually held in the Capital region, Ager said, and has been held at schools and other large meeting spaces before.

Because state law prevents it, Concord does not have any such ban, said School Board President Pam Walsh, and while she said she was glad the person asked to remove their gun cooperated, the incident is prompting the board to consider tailoring the policy around renting school spaces to discourage this from happening again. Such changes could include not renting out the school while there are students on-site.

“Students and their parents have legitimate reasons to fear when they see people carrying weapons into school buildings — and there were definitely concerns from our students,” Walsh said. “We do want our buildings to be available for the public, but our first priority is student safety.”

A 2022 New Hampshire law prevents state and local police from enforcing federal gun laws that don’t align with state standards — including the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which prohibits guns on school grounds. Currently, state law prohibits only students from bringing weapons to school.

Concord Police were not involved directly with the armed attendee, according to Thomas. If there were a situation where someone had brought a gun with them to the school and was not cooperative when asked to either leave or secure the weapon elsewhere, he said Concord Police would have intervened. Thomas was unaware of any previous incidents where someone brought a gun with them to an event at a Concord school.

“If there’s kid events going on, that’s just like school,” Thomas said. “We’ve always stood with the school that the person would be asked to secure it off-campus or leave the event.”

Murphy emphasized that the organizers of the event had followed the district’s guidelines for renting the school as a public space.

In a party-line vote last week, Republican senators nixed a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor to bring a gun onto school grounds. Proponents of the bill argued that the public being allowed to bring firearms into school zones threatened student and staff safety, while opponents stated that, as a misdemeanor, it would not be effective at preventing school shootings and needlessly restricted gun rights.

“When people raise concerns about gun violence, what we hear too often is that the only solution is we have to harden our schools and lock them down — and we continue to focus on improving security in our schools — but then some of those same folks brought in guns to our schools over the weekend, when we have kids there,” Walsh said. “If we’re trying to keep our kids safe and let them feel safe in school, that’s the wrong message from some of our state’s leaders.”