Gun Penalty Bill Stalls In N.H. House

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, February 02, 2018

Lebanon — A bill that would fine school or municipal officials for passing gun bans faces an uncertain future in the New Hampshire Legislature, after losing the support of a key House committee this week.

Members of the House Municipal and County Government Committee voted, 18-2, to refer HB 1749 for interim study. The recommendation effectively would kill the legislation’s prospects of advancing any further this year by directing a group of lawmakers to study and tinker with the bill’s language over the summer. Although the committee’s recommendation likely will carry weight before the full House, some supporters are hopeful a vote next week in the lower chamber will go their way.

“There will likely be a roll call vote on this bill,” said state Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, the bill’s primary sponsor.

Meanwhile, school officials and Lebanon-area representatives are hoping the bill will go away as they grapple with how to best protect students in the classroom.

State Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, said on Thursday he would like to see the House vote down the legislation. However, if referring the matter for interim study will halt its advance, he said he would support that as well.

“That is better than outright passage, but not as good as killing the bill,” he said.

The legislation is meant to correct a problem in the state’s existing firearms law, according to Hoell.

The Legislature has the sole authority to regulate guns in New Hampshire, under a state law passed in 2003.

However, Hoell said, several towns and school districts have adopted their own rules banning guns from public places.

The Lebanon School District is one of those that Hoell and nine other Republicans of the bill have pointed to as being in violation of state law. In October, Lebanon school officials voted to strengthen an existing weapons ban so that guns would be prohibited from school grounds and off-site school events.

That policy is indeed a violation of the law, the Lebanon school district’s attorney and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office recently said, though school districts still can enact policies forbidding students and staff from bringing weapons to school.

The Mascoma, Claremont and Dresden school districts also have similar policies on their books.

Hoell’s bill calls for public officials who implement policies that don’t conform with New Hampshire’s gun law to face up to $5,000 in fines. It also would prohibit public funds from being used to defend area officials in such cases, and would give gun owners aggrieved by such bans the ability to recoup attorneys’ fees in court.

But the issues facing the bill were just too large to tackle in time for the Municipal and County Government Committee’s Thursday deadline, said Rep. James Belanger, R-Hollis, the group’s chairman.

Several committee members submitted amendments, Belanger said. One would have reduced the penalty to a maximum of $500 and another included no penalty at all, he said.

“There was just no time to send it to a study committee to iron out the amendments and come out with a bill that is finished,” Belanger said in a phone interview on Thursday.

But Rep. Frank McCarthy, R-Conway, was more critical of the bill’s problems, saying it was “poorly written to start with.”

He said he would like to see the existing firearms law enforced, and is open to penalizing communities that are found to make their own rules. But McCarthy feels the legislation shouldn’t have been framed as a Second Amendment fight.

“It’s not a gun bill. It was never a gun bill,” he said, adding that sponsors could have gotten communities to comply with the current law without drawing the ire of schools and towns.

State Rep. Vincent Paul Migliore, R-Bridgewater, also said the issue should be addressed with more care. He currently sits on the Newfound Area School Board, which has adopted a weapons ban similar to Lebanon’s.

“My greatest concern was the safety of students and employees first before anything else,” Migliore said, adding that the threat of fines could discourage people from running for local boards. He also noted that school districts face a conflict between federal and state law on the matter.

The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act prohibits unlicensed firearms owners from carrying a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. But local law enforcement is prohibited from enforcing the federal law, according to guidance from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman David Welch, R-Kingston, this week told the Valley News the initial law giving New Hampshire gun owners the right to carry guns on public property was meant to conform with an exemption in the federal law for gun owners with a concealed carry permit.

Lebanon School Board Chairman Jeff Peavey said on Thursday that he is happy Hoell’s bill appears to have stalled. Still, he said he would like to see the Legislature act and allow school districts to ban guns.

School shootings are in the news often, he said, and it’s scary to think one could happen in New Hampshire.

“We’re here to keep our children safe in our school buildings,” he said. “To have it a free-for-all is really not fair.”

The bill is scheduled to go before the full House on Wednesday.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.