State lawmaker’s challenge to House gun ban heads to Supreme Court

Monitor staff
Published: 8/30/2019 6:29:14 PM

It’s official: Goffstown Rep. John Burt is taking his House firearms ban challenge to the state Supreme Court.

The Republican lawmaker has been suing Democratic Speaker of the House Steve Shurtleff over a rule passed by the Legislature back in January that bans firearms and deadly weapons in the House chambers.

But earlier this month, that challenge received a setback after the Merrimack County Superior Court dismissed it. In his ruling, Judge John Kissinger Jr. held that the matter was within the rule-making authority of the House and that the court did not have jurisdiction to intervene.

Now, a lawyer for the House representative says he has filed an appeal, and will challenge that assertion in the highest court.

“We believe the Court has a duty under our system of checks and balances to step in when the legislature violates the constitution,” said Dan Hynes, counsel for Burt and a former Republican representative himself, in a statement.

A spokesman for Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, declined to comment on the appeal. But in a statement on Aug. 1, the day of the Superior Court dismissal, the speaker maintained that the authority for the ban was clear.

“Part 2, article 22 of the New Hampshire Constitution allows the New Hampshire House to set its own rules and I am pleased the court has upheld that right,” Shurtleff said at the time.

The legal drama kicked off several months after the passage of the firearms ban – one of the first acts of the new Legislature after it flipped from Republican to Democratic control in November.

That rule, a restoration of an earlier firearms ban last imposed under Speaker Terrie Norelli, prohibits firearms and other deadly weapons from the House floor, gallery and anteroom, and subjects violators to potential expulsion from the room and arrest. Under the rule, House representatives are required to hand over firearms to building security for safekeeping in the basement while they attend session in the chamber.

Democratic supporters said that the rules would make the 400-member body safer on voting days, pointing to past incidents where representatives’ guns have fallen out of their holsters or purses onto the floor. Opponents, largely Republicans, called it a violation of Second Amendment rights that prevented them from adequately defending themselves.

There have been no known incidents of House members caught or sanctioned under the new rules, nor have there been reports of lawmakers turning in weapons to State House security.

But in his statement Friday, Hynes argued that the rule went too far. And he argued that the precedent of non-intervention cited by the Superior Court would not make sense in other contexts.

“The court found that the House can adopt any rule they want, and that the Judicial branch lacks the authority to determine whether it is constitutional,” Hynes wrote. “If this rationale were allowed to stand, then the Democratic majority of the house could ban women, Christians, Asian Americans, or any other minority from the House floor, and the court would be powerless to intervene.”

He concluded: “While the Legislature may be above the law, they are not above the constitution. We are hopeful that the New Hampshire Supreme Court reverses the dismissal and allows the court to remedy a constitutional violation.”

In his Aug. 1 statement, Shurtleff dismissed the reasoning and defended the rule.

“As I have said before, the House is not just a place for legislative business but a classroom and making sure the children of the Granite State, as well as all of our citizens, who visit the New Hampshire House feel and are safe is a top priority,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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