N.H. Democrats Revive Legislation to Allow School to Ban Guns

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2019 11:54:00 PM
Modified: 1/3/2019 12:06:57 AM

Concord — Following success at the ballot box in November, Democratic legislators are again proposing legislation to allow New Hampshire school districts to bar people from carrying firearms onto school grounds, after a similar effort last year failed to clear a Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill, House Bill 101, would amend state law so that school districts, school administrative units and public charter schools could adopt and enforce their own policies regulating guns and knives on campus.

Proponents say the measure would bring the Granite State into compliance with federal law and allow local officials to determine what works best in their districts. Some also argue that banning guns would make school buildings safer and creates a better learning environment.

However, opponents say the measure could remove a key deterrent against school shootings and cause confusion as districts adopt differing policies.

Democrats took issue with the deterrent argument.

“The minute you let someone into the building with a gun, with a visual gun, these kids, who have no idea whether they’re looking at a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun, are terrorized,” said State Rep. Susan Ford, D-Easton, a retired school principal who supports the bill.

Ford said children are used to seeing police officers with guns, but members of the public openly carrying through hallways would cause students to fear an imminent school shooting.

The bill is sponsored by a group of Seacoast Democrats. The primary sponsor, state Rep. Jacqueline Cali-Pitts, D-Portsmouth, did not return a phone message and email requesting comment.

While the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act bans weapons within 1,000 feet of a school, local law enforcement officials are prohibited from enforcing the law, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

That’s largely because New Hampshire law gives the Legislature sole authority to regulate guns and knives.

In Vermont, it’s a crime to possess a firearm or other deadly weapon while in a school building, on a school bus or on school property.

The issue came to a head last year when then-Rep. JR Hoell, R-Dunbarton, introduced a bill that sought to fine school and municipal officials up to $5,000 for enacting their own gun bans.

The legislation, which ultimately was killed in the House, specifically named the Lebanon School District’s weapons ban. While the school district’s attorney has said Lebanon’s policy doesn’t comply with state law, board members have declined to change it.

“Any legislation intended to help school districts to create a safe learning environment and to implement existing federal law, would help school districts compared to the current legislative conflicts that exist,” Lebanon School Board Chairman Adam Nemeroff said in an email last week. “This draft legislation seems to help to move in the right direction toward that. I will be curious to see what happens when it’s opened for debate.”

State Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, also proposed an amendment to a school safety bill last year to allow districts to set their own policies, but the amendment was killed, 14-9, in a party-line vote.

Republicans are likely to oppose the effort again, with some arguing that rules against firearms aren’t enough to prevent school shootings.

State Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said that putting up signs banning guns might feel good, but it isn’t as effective a deterrent as having a responsible, armed adult inside. Anyone seeking to kill children isn’t going to be stopped by a simple policy or sign, he said.

“Common sense should rule the day, not emotions, not wished but factual things which will in fact stop a bad actor from murdering our children, teachers, staff,” said Giuda, whose district includes the Haverhill area. “I don’t care to legislate ‘feel good’; I care to legislate effectiveness.”

Schools hoping to take preventive steps should consider hiring a school resource officer, and the state should go to greater lengths to provide mental health care to those who need it, he said.

The fact that there hasn’t been a school shooting in the state is a sign that the current law is working, said Alan Rice, president of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, which has lobbied against allowing gun bans.

“I don’t think this bill is needed,” he said last week. “I think it will make people less safe and it will potentially set up our children to be crime victims.”

But Ford, who recently was named an assistant majority leader, said the legislation will be more successful this year with Democrats controlling both chambers of the Statehouse.

The party mustered a 220-163 majority on Wednesday when it voted to ban firearms from the House floor, gallery, coat room and anteroom.

However, even if the school bill passes, it likely would face opposition from Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who campaigned this fall against gun control measures and previously has rejected the idea of banning guns from school grounds.

Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt did not return multiple emails both this week and last requesting comment on the legislation.

The bill is scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee, which is expected to end its review in March.

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

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