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Gun rights concerns tie up grant to fight gang violence

State House Bureau

February 05. 2018 9:10PM

MANCHESTER — Concern over language that includes spreading an “anti-gun message to the community” has some local gun rights advocates asking whether the state should accept a $200,000 federal grant targeting violent gun and gang crimes in Manchester and other cities.

Republican Councilor David Wheeler of Milford has raised Second Amendment concerns about accepting the grant, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of their Project Safe Neighborhood initiative. Meanwhile, Democrats on the Executive Council are frustrated it has been tabled for more than a month.

“The focus of the grant is anti-gun,” Wheeler said. “It even has language in there that questions whether constitutional (concealed) carry is a good idea. It focuses on an inanimate object as being wrong in general.”

The grant proposal states that, “In February of 2017 Gov. Christopher Sununu signed legislation removing the licensing requirement for carrying concealed firearms; it is too soon to tell if this will adversely affect gun crime across the state. The legislation has created some concern for law enforcement requiring strategic planning to address these concerns.”

Manchester police detective Matthew Barter along with Attorney General Gordon MacDonald appeared before the council at their last meeting in January to answer questions in the hope of getting the Executive Council to accept the funds.

Manchester receives the largest share of the grant, which is administered by the state Department of Justice in cooperation with the Project Safe Neighborhoods Task Force comprised of federal, state and local law enforcement and community agencies.

At Wheeler’s request, the grant was tabled on Jan. 24, as it was on Jan. 10. Republican councilors Joe Kenney of Union and Russell Prescott of Kingston supported Wheeler’s motion.

The grant is up for a vote again on Wednesday, and Wheeler says he’s likely to request more delay.

He and the president of the N.H. Firearms Coalition recently met with Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard for more than an hour in the hope of changing some of the strategies outlined in the grant application.

“He understands our concerns, and we have to find out if we can get this money redirected,” said Wheeler on Friday. “As of today, we haven’t got anything concrete worked out.”

Objectionable strategy

Wheeler objects to portions of the grant that call for research on paperwork associated with the denial of gun purchases and ballistics analysis of firearms used in crimes, with the data reported to the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.

Just because someone is denied a gun purchase, doesn’t mean a state police officer should show up at their door to conduct an interview, says Wheeler. Lawful gun owners could end up in a gun registry if their guns are stolen and subject to the ballistic analysis the grant calls for, he added.

Wheeler cites language like this in the grant application: “It is the mission of the team to collaboratively reduce gun and gang-related crime in New Hampshire; join in the nationwide fight against gang and gun-related crime, to get the guns out of the hands of individuals who illegally obtain them and to spread the anti-gun message to the community.”

It’s that last part — “spread the anti-gun message to the community” — that he and other Second Amendment advocates find particularly offensive.

“The point is that the whole approach of the proposal is based on anti-gun mythology promoted by groups whose ultimate intention is a ban on firearms,” Wheeler said.

Unnecessary delay

Democratic Councilor Chris Pappas of Manchester says the funds are desperately needed.

“I’m dismayed this grant has been held up for two meetings now when there is a need out there for funding so law enforcement can disrupt gang activity and keep our communities safe,” he said. “That’s what these dollars are intended for and we need to make sure law enforcement has the tools it needs to do its job.”

He does not think the program poses any threat to the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

“I don’t think there are legitimate concerns here,” says Pappas. “I know in the city of Manchester there is a linkage between the flow of illegal guns, drugs and gang activity. Those things go hand in hand and we need to make sure the Manchester Police Department and State Police are working together to try and disrupt that activity.”

Rising gun violence

The grant application observes that between 2015 and 2016, gun crime in Manchester rose 25 percent. Shootings hit an all-time high with 57 in 2016, a more than 60 percent increase from 2015, mostly associated with the drug trade.

“Patrol officers are dealing with an ever-increasing number of ‘gun calls’ during their shifts and the gun culture is becoming a norm within inner-city neighborhoods,” according to the grant. “Furthermore, the number of illicit firearms on the street is alarming.”

The first phase of the grant calls for development of a strategic plan, which Wheeler sees as an opportunity to change some of the strategies. If he can get those changes, he’ll change his vote.

“I don’t think there’s any way to get rid of the bad verbiage because it’s been federally approved,” says Wheeler. “But maybe we can flesh out how the money is going to be spent differently.”

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