Lawmakers Urged to Act On Gun Laws
Residents Press State Reps. To Tighten N.H. Restrictions
The Rev. Steve Silver, pastor of First Congregational Church in Lebanon, speaks about his desire to see stricter gun regulations for the sake of his and others’ children during the forum on guns at Church of Christ at Dartmouth College in Hanover last night. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Scott Thompson, a police patrol sergeant in Enfield, speaks in opposition to further gun control at the same forum. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Upper Valley residents pleaded with state lawmakers at a community forum yesterday to alter the approach to gun control in New Hampshire.
“Something has to change, something has to give,” said Hanover resident Dena Romero, who was visibly emotional as she urged the five state representatives in attendance to influence legislative action on the issue. “I am willing to do whatever you need me to do to support you in that effort, but I need you to take that effort on with these assault weapons.”
The stated goal of the forum — organized by United Church of Christ in Hanover — was to raise awareness on how Granite State residents could help state lawmakers who support stricter gun control laws, but the majority of those in attendance last evening instead used the forum as an opportunity to call for action from state representatives.
While most of the 70 or so people attending yesterday were in agreement, the meeting wasn’t without tension. Comments made by an Enfield police officer who advocated against restrictions on assault weapon ownership drew the ire of numerous other attendees who were offended by comparisons made between the present day United States and Nazi Germany.
Democratic state representatives from Hanover and Lyme — state Reps. Sharon Nordgren, Bernie Benn, Beatriz Pastor, and Patricia Higgins — all attended the gun forum along with two Democratic state representatives from Lebanon, Susan Almy and Laurie Harding.
None of the state representatives serve on the Criminal Justice Committee, but they could still file legislation related to gun control.
In describing the political climate in Concord, Harding stressed the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of gun control, which she compared to the ideological divide on the issue of abortion rights.
“People are determined to defend their second amendment rights no matter what, and it’s very difficult to get people to change their minds,” she said.
Nearly all of the representatives alluded to the conflicting views of many Republican lawmakers in Concord as a potential barrier to enacting laws that would add additional layers of gun control in the state.
Nordgren described debates in the last legislative session on whether or not to allow concealed weapons on the floor of the Statehouse as “very right-wing and scary,” and Benn said that conservative ideology on gun control as stemmed from a “general paranoia” in American culture that was aided by excessive violence in the media.
One of the first audience members to speak at yesterday’s forum was Scott Thompson, an Enfield Police Department patrol sergeant, who initially identified himself as “one of the evil (National Rifle Association) members” and “also a police officer.”
Thompson spoke for five minutes, referencing several historic events that he contended demonstrated the need for citizens to own assault weapons. Those events included the internment of about 100,000 Japanese-Americans he said were “taken out of their homes and placed in internment camps just like Hitler did to the Jews.”
Many at the forum gasped at times as Thompson spoke while clutching notes on a white sheet of paper. He mentioned several historical moments of unrest, from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the Los Angeles riots of the early 1990s as events that illustrate a need for citizen-owned assault weapons.
“Thankfully, we live in a civilized society, so it’s become a lot less apparent,” he said. “But it’s the citizens who need the rights to protect themselves from governments who commit genocide on a regular basis.”
In general, the tone of the meeting was one of frustration among Upper Valley residents who felt the prospects for getting gun control legislation passed on the state and federal levels were stacked against them due to powerful lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association, as well as lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Republican majority.
The Rev. Stephen Silver, a pastor at the First Congregational Church in Lebanon, reflected that tone as he stood in the aisle between the pews and spoke directly to the lawmakers while emphasizing the importance of legislative action.
“These are laws, they are not sacred scripture,” he said. “They should not be idolized and they could be changed.”
But Silver then spun around and faced the crowd that had gathered there, pointing emphatically to fellow attendees of the forum as he spoke.
“You know why the (National Rifle Association) makes a difference? Money,” he said. “Are people willing to put their money on the table to support efforts to fight the (National Rifle Association)? That’s what’s going to make the difference.”
He continued, “If our legislators know they are going to have our votes and our money and our presence, they will stand up and they will fight for what’s right.”
Carla Bailey, senior pastor at the church, said in her opening remarks at the forum that it was no longer the time to present the case for gun control, and that the focus instead should be on changing laws — but state Rep. Pastor took a different view.
“At this point, we do need to make our case, because the other case is our culture,” said Pastor, who advocated for instituting gun control lessons as part of the curriculum in public schools.
Former state Rep. Frank Gould, of Lebanon, who was in attendance, said that one of the reasons he decided not to run again for office was a fear that he would be shot on the floor of the House after lawmakers approved a bill in 2011 to allow concealed weapons in the Statehouse.
“I don’t know how many times I saw myself turning around and looking up in the gallery to see if there was anybody toting a gun today,” he said. “It was a fear that I just couldn’t live with.”
News broke over the weekend that a working group led by Vice President Joe Biden was considering measures that include universal background checks on firearm purchases, a national database to track weapons sales, and tougher penalties for carrying guns near schools as part of a broader legislative gun control package in addition to a renewed ban on the sale of assault weapons.
Some pushing by the White House may be required for federal lawmakers in Vermont and New Hampshire, the majority of whom have mixed records on gun control.
In the last election cycle, the National Rifle Association handed down middle-of-the-road “C” grades to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte was at the head of the class with an “A” from the gun rights advocacy group while Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., just barely passed with a “D-” and U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H. received an “F.” No rating was available for U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
At the forum yesterday, Harding mentioned Kuster and Shaheen specifically as lawmakers that constituents should “pay attention to” when it comes to applying pressure on the levers of government.
Nordgren said that the most pertinent gun control issue for House lawmakers to resolve next session would be the repeal of the so-called stand-your-ground gun law passed by New Hampshire Republicans in 2011, which states that a person may justifiably use deadly force if they perceive a threat and are in a place they have a legal right to be in.
“We know the gun owners will be there, so it will be important for us to have those of you who care about the other side there too,” she said.
On the other side of the river, a group led by Norwich resident Laurie Levin is working to gather signatures to place a warning article on Town Meeting Day ballots across the Vermont side of the Upper Valley.
The warning article calls for universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Levin said it would represent a “mandate” for Vermont’s federal and state lawmakers.
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Tuesday, Jan. 8 edition of the Valley News:
New Hampshire state representatives may introduce legislation on any topic, regardless of their committee assignment. An article in yesterday's Valley News inaccurately described who could file a bill related to gun control.