Citing school safety concerns, bill would ban guns at polling places

Monitor staff
Published: 1/25/2017 12:20:16 AM

Schools are one of the few public spaces in New Hampshire protected by federal laws banning guns.

But that changes on Election Day, when many schools serve a double purpose as a polling place. On voting day, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office does not enforce the federal law, and there is no state law on the books prohibiting gun owners from carrying in their polling place – even if that polling place is a school.

Some Democratic lawmakers are now attempting to ban the practice – arguing it shouldn’t be difficult for gun owners to leave their firearms in the car while they go in to vote.

“I don’t believe guns have a place in polling places anyway,” said Democratic state Rep. Wayne Burton from Durham, the bill’s prime sponsor. “If there’s one place people should feel safe, it’s when they’re casting their ballot.”

Other lawmakers argued during a hearing Tuesday that the bill infringes on their Second Amendment rights.

“I do not lose my rights because I walk into a school,” said state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Republican from Londonderry. “We’re trying to fix something that is not broken. We’re the safest state in the country because we have the right to protect ourselves.”

The issue of guns in school zones came to the forefront ahead of the 2016 election, when some expressed fears of voter intimidation during a particularly divisive campaign. Several school officials expressed concern as well.

Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office released a statement saying that open carrying or carrying concealed with the appropriate license was legal, even in a school polling location.

“There are no New Hampshire election laws that prohibit a voter from carrying a firearm into a polling place that is located at a school,” a statement from the attorney general’s office said. “The State of New Hampshire has no authority to enforce the federal Gun Free School Zones Act.”

It became an issue in Durham when some volunteer poll workers sat out the 2016 election for fear of their safety, according to Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig.

“They were worried someone might bring a weapon to the polls and by doing so, try to intimidate other voters,” Selig said. “The worry, it was palpable.”

Durham high school students had a day off from school on Nov. 8. Other districts, like Concord, also gave students the day off, but some in the state continue to hold classes while voters were casting their ballots.

On Tuesday, Burton said he doesn’t believe high school students should miss a day of school over safety concerns.

“The rights of the unarmed voter have to be given some attention,” Burton said.

Election Day 2016 passed without incident or any reports of voter intimidation in Durham, but Selig and Burton said they are concerned about what could happen in the future.

They said allowing voters to bring guns to the polls will make school districts less likely to agree to hold elections in schools – buildings that sometimes are the only places large enough to accommodate voters.

That could present a significant space issue in Durham, according to Selig.

During presidential elections, “we have an extraordinarily large turnout,” he said. In the 2016 election, more than 9,600 people showed up to cast their ballots.

“You need a place where you can process 9,600 people over the course of the day,” Selig said.

Oyster River High School is the only place in town that meets the space constraints. Though Durham is home to the University of New Hampshire, many of those buildings are already occupied or don’t have sufficient parking nearby, they said.

“It creates a real problem; there’s not a viable alternative that we’ve been able to identify at this time,” Selig said.

Some of the state representatives on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing testimony on the bill seemed skeptical of Burton’s arguments on Tuesday.

State Rep. Frank Sapareto, a Republican from Derry, said he would like to see the bill amended to make sure law enforcement officials were exempt from a ban.

Meanwhile, members of the committee including Republican state Reps. John Burt of Goffstown and Larry Gagne of Manchester said they had already been contacted by constituents urging them to vote against the bill.

Republican state Rep. J.R. Hoell of Dunbarton testified against the bill, saying it would force law-abiding citizens to give up their right to vote in order to preserve their right to bear arms.

“Maybe this is in fact the purpose of this bill, to suppress the vote of law-abiding citizens,” Hoell said.

But Burton, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he thinks keeping guns out of schools on Election Day is a no-brainer.

“I believe it’s unnerving,” he said. “I think common sense ought to apply, especially when you’re talking about guns in schools.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter

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