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Gun-free zones: NH backers argue safety and local control, opponents see erosion of freedom and common sense

State House Bureau

March 14. 2018 10:00AM
Protesters line a corridor at the State House Tuesday for a hearing on a bill regarding gun-free zones around schools. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — New Hampshire students who say they’ve grown up with lockdowns and school shooter drills were among those testifying at a State House hearing Tuesday in support of an amendment that would allow gun-free school zones.

Gun-rights advocates turned out in opposition to the proposal.

The public hearing on the amendment, proposed by state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, was held in Representatives Hall in anticipation of a large turnout, but the heavy snow proved a significant deterrent.

Despite the storm, both sides were well-represented in a debate over whether local school boards should have the right to declare gun-free school zones, even though the power to establish gun laws in New Hampshire resides exclusively with the Legislature.

The question already has been on lawmakers’ docket as HB 1749, a bill sponsored by Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, that would specifically prohibit school boards and municipalities from imposing firearms restrictions.

That bill was prompted by decisions in two communities: Milford, where selectmen have banned target shooting on town land, and Lebanon, where the school board has voted to ban firearms on school property and at school events on any property.

The House voted 239-71 on Feb. 8 to send that bill to interim study.

The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., happened on Feb. 14.

Soon after the shooting, in which 17 people were killed, Hennessey, whose district includes Lebanon, introduced her proposal to empower school boards to declare gun-free zones.

“This amendment brings local control to New Hampshire cities and towns,” she said. “It allows school boards to decide how best to keep their schools safe. It does not take guns away from law-abiding citizens.”

Hoell testified that the amendment, if signed into law, would prohibit gun-owning parents from protecting their own children. “I can’t think of anything more intrusive in government than one that bans people from protecting their own children,” he said. “Our best shot is allowing people who are law-abiding citizens to protect them.”

Members of Gun Owners of New Hampshire testified, including board member Joe Hannon, who urged the Senate Education Committee to reject Hennessey’s amendment.

“This amendment would abdicate the authority of the Legislature to a handful of people in each locality who will determine if individuals are allowed to defend themselves or not,” he said.

“Their lives will be in the hands of a small number of elected officials who will infringe on their rights. This will be like putting up a sign that says, ‘We have defenseless people here and it’s a good place for a bad person to do evil.’”

High-school students from Concord and Hopkinton said they and their classmates feel safer in gun-free school zones.

“Gun violence has been a central part of my generation’s life,” said Concord High senior Jonathan Weinberg, who is helping to organize Concord High’s participation in a National School Walkout, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. today at schools across the country.

“Letting people carry guns onto campuses will only make that worse,” he said. “Doing so puts us students and our teachers and administrators in real danger ... Educators have the right to deny these people entrance to their campuses if they feel they are a threat.”

According to the New Hampshire Sunday News, students across the state will be participating in the walkout. As Jonathan Weinberg, part of a new statewide coalition of students focusing on social justice issues told a Sunday News reporter, “It comes down to a single idea of compassion and respect for one’s neighbor and caring for other people.”

At Tuesday’s Concord hearing, Jennifer White, a Hopkinton student, said she and her classmates have grown up with a fear of getting shot at school.

“We go to school to learn, not to fear for our lives,” she said. “When we sit in class, we should be working, not taking note of all the possible exits or staring at the closet, wondering how many of us would be able to squeeze inside of it if a shooter enters the building.”

Hennessy filed the amendment to SB 357. The underlying bill requires school employees to report crimes that would prevent a person from being hired as a teacher, and permits school superintendents to grant certain exceptions to the prohibition on locating syringe service programs in a drug-free zone.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Reagan, R-Deerfield, said the committee has received hundreds of pages of written testimony, all of which will be considered before the committee vote, expected today.

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