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Twin States Differ on the Issue of Guns in Schools

  • Rep. David Binford, R-Orford, left, leads the Winooski basketball team to their bus after they asked for help finding the exit following their game at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H. Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Binford, a girls softball coach at the school and an Army veteran, said the school asked him to provide security for the game. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rep. David Binford, R-Orford, left, stands outside the gym at Rivendell Academy as Wakame LittleJohn, middle, and Abdishakur Gure, right, members of the Winooski basketball team, walk to the locker room following their playoff win in Orford, N.H. Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Binford, a girls softball coach at the school and an Army veteran, said the school asked him to provide security for the game. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Orford Police Chief Chris Kilmer, left, and Rep. David Binford, R-Orford, right, watch the Rivendell boys basketball game with Winooski in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rep. David Binford, R-Orford, middle, helps his wife Dawn, who had been giving their daughter Kirstyn, 16, a piggy back ride, up from the Rivendell basketball floor after the boys basketball game with Winooski in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2017

Orford — Early this month, with Rivendell Academy’s boys basketball team hosting a playoff game that was expected to draw a larger crowd than normal, officials in Orford asked state Rep. David Binford to provide an extra set of hands with security.

The 47-year-old Binford, a first-term Orford Republican who coaches softball at the school and served in the military, showed up wearing a tactical vest and carrying a sidearm in a holster.

Athletic Director Bob Thatcher said he and Orford Police Chief Christopher Kilmer had agreed to ask Binford for help, but neither had expected that he would come armed.

They decided not to say anything to him at the time, however.

“We thought, if we were to approach him it might create more of a distraction,” Thatcher said of Binford, who has two daughters at the school. “There was no distraction.”

“He did everything right that night, except having a firearm on his side,” Thatcher also said.

School officials say they are taking steps to prevent such incidents in the future, but it underscored that legal adult gun owners in New Hampshire can carry a weapon in a wide array of public places, even at many schools, and state and local authorities are relatively powerless to stop it.

And with New Hampshire’s new concealed carry law all but doing away with the need for a permit, more people may be carrying guns unbeknownst to police or other members of the public.

Gun advocates say the new law helps law-abiding citizens protect both their safety and the safety of others.

Former state Rep. Steve Cunningham, R-Croydon, a certified firearms instructor, said self-protection is a major reason why people should be able to carry guns wherever they please. In addition, all people have the liberty to do so under the U.S. Constitution, he said.

“I might be coming out of the church and getting into my car in the dark and somebody is in the parking lot there. … If I can’t carry my gun to the church, then I can’t carry my gun across the parking lot to my car,” Cunningham said. “You don’t know when you are going to get mugged. You don’t know.”

But others disagree.

“I think it is a terrible idea. Honestly, I think we are all at greater risk with the way these new loosening of regulations have gone through,” said state Sen. Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat who voted against the new law. “I don’t feel that anyone is safer as a result. I think we are all in more peril.”

Permissive Gun Laws

Not everyone can own a gun in Vermont or New Hampshire.

For starters, federal law prohibits an array of people from possessing, transporting or receiving firearms, including anyone convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, a person who is a fugitive from justice or someone who has been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.

New Hampshire law states that anyone convicted of a felony against the person or property of another or who commits a felony drug offense may not possess a firearm.

Vermont law bars a person convicted of a “violent crime” from possessing a firearm, which includes a slew of felony offenses and some misdemeanors.

Still, the Twin States have long had some of the most permissive gun laws in the country — and qualified residents in Vermont have always been able to carry weapons, openly or concealed, without a permit in public.

Last month, first-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed a law that repealed a New Hampshire requirement that gun owners obtain a permit through police to carry a concealed, loaded handgun on their person or in a vehicle. The so-called “Constitutional Carry” measure is legal in more than a dozen states, including across northern New England.

New Hampshire was already an open-carry state, so anyone who could legally own a firearm could carry it exposed without a permit. Previously, however, to carry a concealed weapon, New Hampshire residents had to apply for a permit through their local police chief, who would determine whether they were “suitable” to be licensed, according to the old law.

That step is no longer in place, and makes concealed carry licenses merely optional. Critics of the permitting system have argued the earlier standard was too subjective.​

But several police chiefs are wary of the new law.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said he doesn’t think the change will have much of an impact on individuals in the Upper Valley or the crime rate. Based on his experience, only a few people a year had been turned down when seeking a concealed carry permit.

The old system did provide some checks and balances, Mello said, noting now there is a “loophole or blind spot.”

“If someone is having significant mental health issues (for example), and we know about that, we could say (in the past that) they are not suitable,” Mello said. “That is the only issue I have with it.”

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said he wished lawmakers kept the permitting provision in place.

“People have the right to carry guns, but I certainly think there are people who shouldn’t carry,” Dennis said. “That was a way for us to go through a systematic process.”

While both states expressly prohibit guns in courthouses and prisons, they differ on the steps they have taken to prevent guns in schools, a key issue with many parents given the massacres at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, first passed in 1990 and then modified and re-enacted in 1996 after it was successfully challenged in the Supreme Court, made it illegal to posses a firearm in a school or within 1,000 feet of one, though exceptions apply to law-enforcement officers acting in their official capacity and for gun owners who are specifically licensed to possess the gun.

Guns that are unloaded and securely locked away in a vehicle are also allowed, as are unloaded firearms being carried to gain access to adjacent hunting grounds with permission from school authorities, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Vermont, state law is straightforward, as well. The Legislature years ago enacted a law that made it a crime for a citizen to possess a firearm or other deadly weapon while in a school building, on a school bus or on school property, said Vermont Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell.

A person in violation could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first offense. The law has two exceptions, one relating to uniformed law-enforcement officers and the other for a person who has been granted permission by school authorities to carry a gun for a “specific occasion or for instruction or other specific purposes.”

But in New Hampshire, the situation is less clear. While it’s against federal law to have a gun in school, New Hampshire doesn’t have a comparable law on the books, meaning local law enforcement could be in a bind when faced with a legal gun owner carrying a gun into a school, said New Hampshire Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice.

“New Hampshire police officers do not have authority to enforce federal laws, including the federal law known as the (Gun-Free School Zones Act), and thus could not arrest someone for violating that law,” Rice said last week. “A federal law enforcement officer could, including an ATF agent.”

But when asked if the provision in federal law authorizing individuals to posses firearms in a school zone if they are licensed to do so applies to people in New Hampshire who have obtained a gun-carry permit, acting U.S. District Attorney John Farley declined to comment. “I’m not going to weigh in on that,” Farley said. “I don’t want to render a legal opinion.”

Farley also said he couldn’t comment on how the repeal of the permit requirement in New Hampshire — making such permits optional — might affect the federal law when it comes to schools in the Granite State.

“This isn’t something we have had an opportunity to fully study and analyze,” Farley said.

At the Rivendell playoff game against Winooski High School on March 1, Binford told a Valley News photographer that he sometimes drills with Orford police and was helping with security at the game.

A father of five, Binford said he was an Army veteran who was deployed in 2010-11 to Afghanistan, and his campaign literature also said he served with the Air Force during Desert Storm and re-enlisted in the military at age 39, joining the Army.

In emailed responses to a series of questions from the Valley News on Thursday, Binford said Thatcher, the athletic director, had “asked if I would assist with security for the playoff basketball game. I was there as security in the parking lot, and any other needs by the school.”

Asked why he wore a tactical vest and sidearm that evening, Binford replied, “I wore the same mode of equipment as any other person would wear while providing security.”

Binford also said he holds a permit to carry in both Tennessee and New Hampshire, has “concealed carry training,” and also has military experience and training with combat arms in the Army.

He also said he was following the law while armed on Rivendell property, citing the permit he said he holds, and also noting that the federal law regarding guns in schools is enforceable only by federal agents.

“While I carry, I follow the laws that are in place for the venue in which I am in attendance,” Binford said.

He said he does not carry a weapon openly while coaching students.

“I take firearm security seriously and only carry responsibly,” he said.

He also said he voted for the “constitutional carry” measure because it is “good for all law-abiding New Hampshire citizens, it restored their right under the Second Amendment, especially while in their vehicles, which is seen under New Hampshire law as an extension of their home.

“It is still recommended that individuals obtain a concealed carry permit, as states outside of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine still require a permit to carry and a New Hampshire citizen will need the permit in order to carry in other states that practice reciprocity with New Hampshire,” Binford added.

Rivendell Looks to Vermont

The distinction between Vermont and New Hampshire when it comes to gun laws in schools has prompted Rivendell, an interstate school district serving Orford and the Vermont towns of Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, to take a closer look at its policies.

While the school has long had a policy that forbids students from having a weapon at school or at school activities, with penalties up to expulsion, some school officials are hoping New Hampshire will pass a law akin to Vermont’s when it comes to schools.

Rivendell Interstate School District Head of Schools Keri Gelenian said he was baffled, then alarmed, by the lack of clarity on the books around guns in schools in New Hampshire. He started looking closer into the topic when the state did away with concealed carry permit requirements, he said.

“We found out that it was possible for citizens to bring guns in,” Gelenian said, and that Binford spurred his curiosity only “indirectly.”

“When I started to look into the nuances of it, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is murky.’ ”

Dean of Students Michael Galli said he assumed — like other employees in the district — that Rivendell was a gun-free zone, “and that all schools were gun-free zones,” he said. His research thus far leads him to believe the topic hasn’t been challenged, and later this month, Galli said, he plans to ask a state legislator to sponsor legislation similar to Vermont’s gun ban as it relates to schools and school property.

“I think these legislators are rational and reasonable folks,” Galli said. “I have confidence that they will take this as a serious issue.”

Gelenian was less sure.

“I am skeptical because I think this is an ideologically driven issue ... the Second Amendment folks screaming about gun rights,” he said.

Rivendell Superintendent Mike Harris said Rivendell currently has no policy regarding adults who may be carrying guns in schools, but pointed to the “no weapons” policy for students and another against threats of violence or destruction.

Harris said Binford has never been paid at any time by the school district to provide security at games.

Harris, a veteran educator and former superintendent in Lebanon, said he has been asked by the Rivendell School Board to prepare a policy in which only uniformed police officers would provide security at school events.

Kilmer, the Orford police chief, said the issue of an adult carrying a gun into an area school hasn’t “arisen to the point where it is a problem and I’ve had to address it.”

“I don’t think the students should be allowed to carry, but as far as law-abiding adults exercising their right, I don’t have an issue with that,” Kilmer said.

Policies at Major Employers

New Hampshire Firearms Coalition Vice President Alan Rice said New Hampshire’s laws are clear about where a person can carry. “If it is not prohibited, it is allowed,” said Rice.

But Mello, Lebanon’s police chief, noted that private businesses and organizations can dictate whether they want to allow someone to carry firearms on their property.

Enforcing such a policy can be tricky. Because it is a policy and not a law, the person can’t be arrested for a firearms violation. He or she could be asked to leave though. Refusing to do so could lead to an arrest on trespassing or disorderly conduct charges, Mello said.

Three of the largest employers in the Upper Valley have concrete policies banning weapons. Hypertherm employees, contractors and visitors are not allowed to carry, show or sell weapons while on company property, conducting business elsewhere, or riding in company vehicles, said spokeswoman Michelle Avila.

Hunting rifles are allowed if they are secured and hidden inside a locked vehicle.

“Contractors and visitors in violation of the policy would be restricted from accessing Hypertherm properties or doing business on our behalf,” Avila said.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center also has a “systemwide no-weapons policy,” said spokesman Rick Adams.

The policy prohibits all individuals, including staff, from possessing weapons, including guns, knives or other weapons, on the hospital’s campus, Adams said.

The hospital has “no weapons” signs posted on public and patient entrances.

“As a private institution, we are empowered to ask a patient or visitor to surrender any firearm or weapon on their person when entering our facilities,” Adams said. Anyone in violation could be subject to removal, a ban or some type of criminal prosecution, he added.

Dartmouth College also bans weapons on campus, said spokesman Justin Anderson. “The policy states that ‘the possession, manufacture, transfer, sale, or use of weapons by anyone on college property or at any college event, without the explicit authorization of Dartmouth, is expressly prohibited,’ ” Anderson said.

Republicans in Concord have successfully changed Statehouse rules to allow guns to be carried in the building, and two GOP lawmakers in the past five years have accidentally dropped their handguns on the floor during committee hearings.

Hennessey, the state senator from Hanover who previously served in the New Hampshire House, has been unnerved while serving in the Legislature.

“I felt very afraid at times in the House,” she said. “Someone who sat behind me would come back from lunch reeking of alcohol and he carried a large (handgun) in his pants. It really gave me a lot of discomfort,” she said.

Vermont has a policy prohibiting guns in state buildings, including the Statehouse, unless they are being carried by law enforcement officers.

Valley News photographer James M. Patterson contributed to this report. Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.