N.H. AG: School Gun Bans Unlawful

  • FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2016 file photo, handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas. The largest gun industry trade show will be taking place in Las Vegas Jan. 23-26 just a few miles from where a gunman carried out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. (AP Photo/John Locher, File) John Locher

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/28/2018 11:58:36 PM
Modified: 1/28/2018 11:58:38 PM

Lebanon — The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office says it agrees with legal experts who maintain that school officials in the Granite State cannot legally enforce firearm bans on school grounds.

Policies in Lebanon, Hanover and surrounding communities that prohibit the public from carrying guns onto school property violate state law, according to Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards.

In an email last week, Edwards said her opinion aligns with the message delivered to the Lebanon School Board by its attorney on Wednesday: In New Hampshire, only the state Legislature can  regulate firearms.

Lebanon’s policy, which was recently strengthened, will have to be amended in the coming weeks to comply with state law, James O’Shaughnessy, of the Manchester-based firm Drummond Woodsum, told board members.

It’s not just Lebanon schools that could be affected by the legal opinion. Other Upper Valley school districts are assessing what they can do lawfully to protect students. Meanwhile, a group of legislators is calling for a repeal of the state law that curtails local control.

“I really think that guns shouldn’t be in schools, they shouldn’t be on college campuses,” said state Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills, on Sunday.

Tanner, a retired Kearsarge Regional High School teacher, said she understands that people want to protect themselves, and that often includes carrying a firearm. However, she’s skeptical that being allowed to carry weapons on school campuses would enhance safety and security.

Instead of guns in schools, she said, districts need more resources and a working relationship with police who are appropriately trained to handle emergencies.

“Good planning, good emergency planning, good mental health services within schools, those are the things we need to look at,” said Tanner, who also owns firearms.

Rep. Dan Wolf, R-Newbury, also said the issue needs to be further studied by the Legislature, especially because state law appears to conflict with federal law.

The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act bans weapons within 1,000 feet of a school.

But the state Attorney General’s Office said last year that local police departments don’t have the jurisdiction to enforce federal statutes.

Meanwhile, state law provides the state Legislature with the sole authority to regulate guns and knives, meaning school districts and municipalities cannot set their own rules, even if they conform to the federal law.

“I think the whole thing has to be looked at in general,” said Wolf, a former chairman of the Kearsarge Regional School Board. “I believe the Second Amendment is not an unlimited right at any and all times to bear arms.”

Rep. Sue Almy, D-Lebanon, also called for repeal of the state law that limits local officials, even though she supported the 2003 legislation that established the policy.

At the time, House Bill 415 garnered wide, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and was signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Craig Benson.

However, some have since contended that lawmakers didn’t really know what they were signing onto.

The bill gave the state jurisdiction over “sale, purchase, ownership, use possession, transportation, licensing, permitting, taxation, or other matter pertaining to firearms.”

The provision was attached to another measure, which sought to increase the number of minors who would have right to a speedy trial in instances of sexual assault.

When legislators voted in 2003, most only saw the sexual assault provision on the House calendar, and not a major revision of state gun laws, then-Rep. Ted Leach, R-Hancock, wrote in a letter to the Concord Monitor.

“(Proponents) were betting that many in the House wouldn’t bother reading beyond the abstract,” he wrote. “They were right.”

Almy said it’s possible she was fooled by the bill’s structure, but doesn’t recall. Regardless, she would vote to amend the law.

“People walking into schools armed and the school not being able to stop them from doing it is not a thing that I think at all is proper,” she said.

Meanwhile, some Republicans say they support the status quo, while others are unsure how to proceed.

State Sen. Bob Giuda, a Haverhill-area Republican, said existing gun laws are consistent with New Hampshire values. He also expressed concern with school districts and municipalities attempting to flout state law with their own policies.

“I think the law as it stands is good,” said Giuda, a Warren resident.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley disagreed with the Attorney General’s opinion of the law, saying in an email that he doesn’t see the state statute conflicting with local policies such as the one in Lebanon.

“It is my understanding that under state and federal laws, schools are free to adopt their own policies prohibiting firearms,” he wrote.

Sen. Ruth Ward, a Newport-area Republican, called Lebanon’s situation a “tough issue” because she understands that school officials want to protect children in their care.

“Calling the police when there is an unwanted person on the school premises, may not be fast enough. Should some of the faculty have firearms in case?” Ward, of Stoddard, said. “I don’t have a good answer at this point. We need to protect our children, but how?”

Gov. Chris Sununu hasn’t made clear whether he would support repealing the law.

“There is nothing more important than ensuring our kids are safe at school,” Sununu said in a statement, adding he doesn’t support “additional Second Amendment restrictions” at this time.

A potential Democratic challenger to Sununu is this year’s general election, Steve Marchand, does want to see the law changed, though.

“We should be moving in a different direction,” the former Portsmouth mayor said on Sunday. “I think we should repeal that law and I would seek to do so as governor.”

Local officials, such as school boards and selectboards, should be able to make decisions they feel will best keep their communities safe, he said.

However, a group of 10 Republican legislators are hoping to strengthen the existing state law, taking aim at communities and school districts that have made their own rules.

HB 1749 would institute a $5,000 penalty for elected officials who have been found by a judge to have violated the state firearms law.

The bill also would forbid school districts and municipalities from using public money to “defend or reimburse the unlawful conduct” of those elected officials.

That legislation is currently before the House Municipal and County Government Committee.

While politicians ponder potential next steps, area school officials are debating what, and if anything, can be done to keep their campuses gun-free.

The Lebanon School Board voted in October to strengthen its weapons policy, which has been on the books since at least 1990.

The policy forbids weapons from entering school buildings, property, vehicles or school-sponsored events.

It applies to students, staff members and the public alike.

But the school district will soon be writing new rules in the coming weeks, which are expected to better align with the state law.

Claremont Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin said he’s discussed the matter with school employees and they’ve developed a protocol.

If someone comes to a Claremont or Unity school armed, a faculty member is to meet that person and explain the school district continues to prohibit guns.

The staff member will also ask the armed person to leave school property and return without the firearm.

If anyone refuses the request, Claremont teachers and staff are then advised to call police to have the person removed.

“My main objective is just to maintain the safe school environment,” McGoodwin said, adding he hopes gun owners and teachers can come to an understanding without conflict.

The Mascoma and Dresden school districts have policies similar to Lebanon’s on the books.

Dresden School Board Chairman Neil Odell said the board hasn’t discussed whether to amend its policy but expects the subject to come up in future meetings.

Meanwhile, Mascoma Superintendent Patrick Andrew said his district likely won’t be making changes soon.

Andrew said he thinks schools have wide legal latitude to determine who is allowed on campus.

Rivendell Interstate School District is also examining its policy. Dean of Students Michael Galli said a discussion will likely be scheduled for February.

“I expect it to ban the public from bringing handguns into our school,” Galli said in an email. “I am encouraging our district to take a stand.”

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

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