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With an open State House, New Hampshire State Police, National Guard ‘stand ready’ for pre-inauguration protests

  • Skylar Bennett of Savage Truth 603 was one of the protesters outside the New Hampshire State House on Jan. 7 during Gov. Chris Sununu’s inauguration speech. Prior to that, Bennett was arrested for criminal trespassing at Sununu’s residence in Newfields. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Skylar Bennett of Savage Truth 603 was one of the armed protesters outside the New Hampshire State House on Thursday, January 7, 2020 during Governor Chris Sununu’s inauguration . Bennett was arrested for criminal trespassing at Sununu’s residence in Newfields recently. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Skylar Bennett of Savage Truth 603 was one of the armed protesters outside the New Hampshire State House on Thursday, January 7, 2020 during Governor Chris Sununu’s inauguration . Bennett was arrested for criminal trespassing at Sununu’s residence in Newfields recently. GEOFF FORESTER

  • A small group of protesters stand in a candlelit circle in front of the New Hampshire State House during the inaugural address of Gov. Chris Sununu on Jan. 7. GEOFF FORESTER

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/12/2021 12:32:45 PM

New Hampshire State Police and the state’s National Guard units are prepared to deploy should protests in the state turn violent in the coming week, the Department of Safety said Monday.

“The Department of Safety works diligently and collaboratively with our local and federal partners to investigate any and all threats,” Department of Safety Commissioner Robert L. Quinn, who oversees state police, said in a statement Monday. “The New Hampshire State Police takes safety and security threats very seriously, and has a team of experts working on operations plans to ensure safety.”

The statement came after the FBI warned it had discovered plans for armed protests in all 50 state capitals. However, it is not clear whether that threat extends to New Hampshire. A spokesperson for the FBI Boston Division told NBC News Monday that it was “not in possession of any intelligence indicating any planned, armed protests” at state capitols in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Representatives for the State Police and New Hampshire National Guard said both agencies stood “ready to deploy as needed.”

The Department of Safety also stressed the right to protest peacefully, adding that the officers would work to “ensure that any protesters in our areas of jurisdiction are able to freely express their right to demonstrate provided they comply with all state laws.”

It remained unclear Tuesday afternoon what protests – peaceful or otherwise – had been planned in the days ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office Jan. 20.

Last week, a day after the violent unrest in Washington, D.C., several armed protesters gathered on the State House plaza to protest the inauguration of Gov. Chris Sununu, who they argued had violated New Hampshire residents’ rights with lock down orders.

A history of openness

The New Hampshire State House is  one of the least guarded government buildings in the country, with no metal detectors at any entry points and a light security presence in the building. 

That’s by design; political leaders on both sides have championed the accessibility of lawmakers to the public, and the ability for anyone to attend hearings and watch voting days. Most state representatives list their own phone numbers and even home addresses online. 

Yet on Jan. 6, hundreds of rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building while both chambers were in session, injuring police officers and killing one, causing property damage and prompting the evacuation of members of Congress into lockdown rooms. 

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the FBI warned of copycat protests across the nation.

Many in politics don’t want New Hampshire’s openness to change. In an interview Tuesday, House Speaker Sherman Packard said the idea of metal detectors and increased security would go against the principles of the Legislature.

“I hope to hell we never get to that point. This is the people’s building,” the Londonderry Republican said. “To me it would be extraordinary if we ever had to do that. It’s not our intention to ever have to restrict people’s access to their building.”

Packard said that he had not been briefed on any specific concerns about threats in New Hampshire.

“Obviously the State Police and House security officers are taking everything that they hear seriously, and I’m sure they’re making the appropriate plans.”

Guns in the State House

Temporary metal detectors have been set up only twice in recent years; once in November 2019 to allow Vice President Mike Pence to arrive to file President Donald Trump for re-election and once for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2015 to file her own candidacy for office. Both times, the U.S. Secret Service shut off all but one of the five entryways into the building and funneled lawmakers, staff and the public through the detectors for that day.

Firearms are allowed throughout the building, another tradition cherished by gun rights groups that has survived for over a decade, though not without controversy. 

In recent years, Democratic lawmakers have sought to restrict firearms and other deadly weapons from being worn on the House floor; Republican lawmakers have fiercely objected. A rule passed in 2018 under Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff re-initiated the ban and prompted a lawsuit by another representative, John Burt, a Goffstown Republican. In December, the newly elected Republican House repealed that rule, allowing the weapons to return. Some members say they never stopped carrying even with the rule in effect.

For weeks now, though, the State House has been largely quiet. Both the House and the Senate legislative staff teams – for both Republicans and Democrats – have been working from home for weeks due to new COVID-19 restrictions, according to staff people in both chambers. Those who do enter the building must obtain permission first.

Paul Raymond, strategic communications administrator for the Department of Safety, said that the procedures in place in advance of Biden’s inauguration are no different from what State Police and the National Guard prepare for regularly.

Raymond said the statement was sent out Monday to reassure residents after news reports indicated concern from the FBI about possible follow-up protests. 

A spokesperson for Gov. Chris Sununu declined to comment on the working approaches for the governor’s staff.

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