N.H. State House Guards to Be Armed; Several Entrances to Be Blocked to Public

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Concord Monitor
Published: 6/24/2016 12:38:50 AM
Modified: 6/24/2016 12:38:59 AM

Concord — Statehouse guards will soon be armed with guns and some building entrances will be off limits to the public as part of a major policy shift meant to strengthen security.

“We’re looking at our vulnerabilities,” said House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff. “It’s a different world we live in. These are prudent steps.”

A legislative facilities committee, composed of high-ranking senators and representatives, recently approved the change.

Security guards who patrol the Statehouse complex will begin carrying sidearms when they complete training courses in about three weeks, Pfaff said.

The eight-person force is not currently armed, but it is supplemented by two auxiliary state police officers who do carry weapons. Visitors and lawmakers are allowed to carry guns in most parts of the Statehouse and Legislative Office Building, which are open to the public on weekdays.

“It’s good that security will be armed,” said House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff. “It’s somewhat ironic that we allow people into the Statehouse armed, but our own security force is not.”

The change will also limit public entry points to the Statehouse, so that guards can keep a better eye on comings and goings, Shurtleff said.

Visitors will only be able to enter the Statehouse through the front door and a handicapped-accessible side door off Park Street.

Lawmakers and staff will be given key cards to swipe into the building’s back entrances off North State Street, and to use an underground tunnel that connects the Statehouse to the Legislative Office Building, where most public hearings are held. The tunnel is heavily trafficked in the wintertime by lawmakers, visitors and lobbyists.

Statehouse leaders will alert the public and lawmakers when those changes go into effect, most likely later this summer.

The 10-member Joint Legislative Facilities Committee unanimously approved the entrance policy Tuesday. The committee discussed arming the guards at a meeting several months ago, before House Speaker Shawn Jasper and Senate President Chuck Morse signed off on the policy.

Morse, a Salem Republican on the committee, said the changes are a “logical” way to enhance security.

The security measures are not prompted by any specific incident, but come as the result of a Statehouse security assessment commissioned by legislative leaders.

“We know, in light of the threat posed by lone-wolf terrorists, that we needed to look at the infrastructure and security concerns in this building,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. “We have to address them carefully to keep the building as accessible as we can, but also protect the safety of people who are here on a routine basis.”

The security changes at the Statehouse reflect a broader trend across state government of preparing for potential threats. Following several mass shootings last year, all 11,000 state employees have had to complete active-shooter training.

The House in recent years has gone back and forth over whether its members can carry concealed firearms in the chamber, gallery and cloakrooms. They presently can, after Republican representatives approved the change last year in the name of self defense.

The push to arm Statehouse guards has grown in recent years. Republican Rep. Al Baldasaro proposed a bill in 2015 to arm those that patrol the building. “We want to make sure we have a little extra protection,” he told the Monitor then.

There hasn’t been a shooting at the New Hampshire Statehouse in recent years, but some gun mishaps have made headlines. Former Northwood representative Kyle Tasker, a Republican, dropped his concealed handgun on the floor as he was entering a committee hearing in 2012.

Shurtleff said security changes are necessary for the Statehouse to keep up with the times.

“We always hope for the best,” Shurtleff said. “But we do need a plan for the possibility of something catastrophic happening.”

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