January 10. 2018 9:08PM

NH legislators debate more changes to gun laws; Sununu voices support for status quo

State House Bureau

Rifles are seen at the Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. gun factory in Newport, N.H., on Jan. 6, 2012. (Reuters File)

CONCORD — Four different bills regarding guns were debated in public hearings at the State House on Wednesday, but Gov. Chris Sununu said he is satisfied with the status quo when it comes to gun control in New Hampshire, and is not inclined to sign any new legislation.

“Right now I think we don’t need any additional gun restrictions or gun laws on the books. I’m pretty happy where they are and I think the people of New Hampshire are pretty happy where they are,” said Sununu.

One of the first bills he signed into law last year was SB 12, which allows anyone who legally owns a gun to carry it in a concealed fashion without a permit from their local police chief. That seems to be about as far as the governor wants to go, at least for now.

Sununu was responding to a question about HB 1749, a bill promoted by some gun rights advocates who say municipalities are exceeding their authority with new ordinances that amount to local gun control measures.

The bill was the subject of a public hearing in Representatives Hall on Tuesday. On the same day, two other bills to expand gun owners’ rights in the state were being debated.

HB 1380 would allow the discharge of a firearm within city limits or town borders with the written permission of all abutting property owners. Current law requires the permission of the police chief or governing body.

HB 1542 overturns the gun-free zones established at university and community college campuses in New Hampshire.

The fourth bill, HB 1566, would take gun laws in the opposite direction, prohibiting open carry of a firearm in certain public places such as hospitals, bars, polling places during elections, houses of worship, any entertainment venue that seats more than 5,000 and any public building.

Two towns cited

HB 1749 cites Milford selectmen for banning target shooting on town land and the Lebanon School Board, which has voted to ban firearms on school property and at school events on any property.

Supporters of the bill say the change is necessary for the state to protect its jurisdiction over gun control and the rights of gun owners as they move from one municipality to another.

The bill would nullify local gun control ordinances and establish legal liability for local officials who vote for them, including civil fines of up to $5,000 for each violation.

New Hampshire already has a law on the books giving the state exclusive control over firearms regulation and banning municipalities from imposing any of their own.

“The issue at hand is even though that statute has been on the books for a number of years, we still see issues,” said Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, one of the bill’s sponsors, in testimony Wednesday before the House Committee on Municipal and County Government. “Towns are making judgment calls in violation of this statute.”

Hoell said the state needs to enforce consistency in firearms regulations, and cited the example of a school board that declares a gun-free zone for all school-related activities.

“We’ll have citizens carrying firearms for self-protection who suddenly find themselves running afoul of town laws,” said Hoell.

Opponents of the bill argued it’s unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional as regards the right of the judiciary to establish its own rules for the courts.

Separation of powers

Howard Zibel, chief counsel for the state court system, said the state constitution gives the judicial branch exclusive responsibility for what happens in the courtroom. “If this bill moves forward I suggest that control of firearms in the courtroom be left to the judge,” he said.

Also testifying against the bill was the head of the N.H. Municipal Association, Judy A. Silva. “The issue here from our perspective is not about controlling guns, but rather who has the authority to control and manage town-owned property,” she said.

In testimony before the House Criminal Justice Committee on the right to bear arms in university and community college classrooms, former Republican Rep. Joe Hannon argued that the university and community college systems should not be treated any differently than other public places.

“The idea that the university system can make its own rules on firearms is absurd,” he said.

The UNH chief of police and the chair of the community college system trustees, in written testimony, urged lawmakers to reject the bill, saying it would impose new costs on the schools for things like gun safes, higher liability insurance rates and litigation risk.

“In addition to safety concerns, we believe this law could negatively impact enrollment at our campuses,” they wrote, “with student and parents choosing campuses they believe to be safer because of prohibitions on firearms.”