Proposed gun limits in schools stir passionate debate at hearings

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Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, is pictured testifying against HB 109 at a legislative hearing on Feb. 13, 2019. Photo/Paula Tracy

CONCORD, NH – A series of house bills that would limit gun possession in schools and close a loophole for sales at gun shows attracted more than 100 gun rights advocates to the State House Wednesday, demanding legislators reject all measures.

But supporters of the measures, all sponsored by Democrats, said the time has come for the state to do more to protect its citizens from gun violence.

House Bill 109 would require background checks for commercial firearms sales for the non-federally licensed firearms sellers who come to gun shows.

Another measure, House Bill 514, would impose a seven-day waiting period rather than four days for purchase of handguns. House Bills 101 and 564 would allow for the creation of gun-free zones at schools.

Anthony Zore of Conway took the day off from work and drove through the snow to the State House to tell legislators that bills to create gun-safe school zones would actually do the opposite in New Hampshire.

House Bills 564 and 101, as proposed do “nothing to protect our schools and only gives the gunman the choices,” Zore said. The only thing that equalizes that threat “is something that can be deployed immediately to stop that attack and that would be a firearm.”

“This is disarming the very people we want to carry,” Zore said. “This law defends the attackers and has the opposite of its intent.”

Doris Hampton of Canterbury and Ruth Sanchez of Concord carried signs in the Legislative Office Building in support of HB101 relative to regulating possession of firearms in a school district. Photo/Paula Tracy

No guns in schools

But Nancy Brennan of Weare, a retired teacher, said she would never bring a gun into a school because of the potential of missing her target, even though she owns guns and knows how to use them.

“I look at this from the perspective of being in a school,” she said. The legislation, she said “are steps to helping things change in our schools.”

New Hampshire is considered the third-safest state in the nation, according to 2017 Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. It has some of the highest per capita gun ownerships and is among a handful of states that have been spared a mass shooting in schools, the House Education Committee was told.

Whether creating gun-free school zones helps or hurts children was the central debate for three hours of testimony, with more than 125 in attendance.

The bills were heard on the eve of the first anniversary of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students were killed.

Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, testifies at hearing on HB 102. Photo/Paula Tracy

Supporters outnumbered

While opponents testifying outnumbered supporters on House Bill 101, and it was equally split on House Bill 564, several speakers said they represent scores of school children who feel frightened by recent school violence and want gun-free school zones allowed in New Hampshire.

Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said the organization opposes the bills based on discussion and votes at a delegate assembly. While a number of schools supported the resolutions for “gun control on school grounds,” he said the marjority did not.

House Bill 101, as introduced, would allow school districts to create policies related to firearms, where currently they have no such authority.

Sponsored by state Rep. Jacqueline Cali-Pitts, D-Portsmouth, the measure would apply to any school administrative unit or chartered public school.

It would allow those bodies to adopt and enforce policies regulating firearms, firearms components, ammunition, firearm supplies, or knives within its school or jurisdiction, the bill states.

The measure would amend the law (RSA 159:26) by inserting language that would allow for the regulating possession of firearms in a school district and would take effect 60 days after its passage.

Cali-Pitts said she was motivated to create the bill after listening to her eight-year-old grandson “talk about what he needs to do if a shooter comes into the school.”

She said the U.S. Supreme Court has ceded the right to the states to decide and she would like to give that right to the local school departments.

Susan Olsen, of the New Hampshire Women’s Defense League and a National Rifle Association certified instructor, said she lives in the Kearsarge School District with a number of jurisdictions, some of which could implement the zones if allowed.

“I am routinely armed,” Olsen said.

Dr. Joe Hannon, a former state representative who is on the board of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, said New Hampshire is one of the most armed states in the country and that actually makes the state safe.

The bill, he said, would only make schools more dangerous, with no means of defense.

“We don’t want to make a big neon sign…saying come on in here,” to murderers, he said.

Brian Blanco said he is a federal firearms dealer whose business is in a school zone and he said he does not want issues with the school district.

A strong showing for both sides of the gun legislation debate in Concord on Feb. 13, 2019. Photo/Paula Tracy

Students weigh in

State Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, supported House Bill 101. She read a letter signed by 110 students, faculty and staff from Lebanon High School. They cited an active shooter incident last year at nearby Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and having to go into lock-down. While that incident ended without the shooter coming into the school the letter asked, “could we be next?” it read. “We are scared.”

Brian Barry of Salem said he closed his firearms store for the day to come to the hearings.

“Guns are not the answer to the world’s problems,” Barry said. “But drawing on my law enforcement and military experience you cannot negotiate with evil.” This bill would create “a patchwork of laws that vary across the state and has the potential to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens,” he said.

House Bill 564, as written, prohibits carrying a firearm in a safe school zone.

Sponsored by state Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, the bill would amend RSA 159 to make it a Class-A misdemeanor to knowingly carry a firearm in a safe school zone. Exceptions would be for any law enforcement officer or student resource officer, or a person authorized in writing to possess a firearm by the school, and those dropping off and or picking up students who have a weapon in a motor vehicle that is not loaded and is in either a locked container or a locked rack.

That measure would take effect upon passage.

Criminal Justice

In the afternoon, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard another gun measure, House Bill 109, which would require background checks for commercial firearms sales.

Sponsored by state Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, this bill requires commercial firearms sales or transfers to be subject to a criminal background check and provides a criminal penalty for a violation.

Advocates said it would close a loophole in current law where a minority of those at gun shows can get a gun from someone who is not a dealer and is just trading or selling his or her collection.

“The general court believes this law will protect public safety by helping to keep firearms out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill,” the bill states.

Each year, the State Police Permits and Licensing Unit, Gun Line handles about 60,000 calls from Federal Firearm Licensed dealers for background checks on the sale of handguns to New Hampshire residents.

State Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry was enraged that the bills being promoted were taking rights away from law-abiding citizens.

He said there is no reason or need for the measures.

Baldasaro said he has always been subject to a background checks when buying a firearm in New Hampshire.