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Pro-gun groups in NH at odds over policy, tactics

State House Bureau

March 24. 2018 9:20PM

Alan Rice, president of the N.H. Firearms Coalition, testifies in the state House of Representatives chamber against a bill to allow school boards to declare gun-free zones. His sidearm is in full view, a violation of House rules. (Courtesy)

CONCORD - Republican state Sen. Kevin Avard thought he was doing his part as an advocate of the Second Amendment when he sponsored a bill standardizing the definition of firearms across state statutes.

Instead, he found himself in the crosshairs of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, which launched an aggressive campaign against the Nashua senator and his bill (SB 500), triggering hundreds of emails and phone calls.

"I demand a public apology for the slander," Avard said Thursday. "They put out a hit piece on me. That's not acceptable, calling me a sleazy politician in the mold of Nancy Pelosi just because I did not genuflect at their altar. There are three or four other gun groups out there who are in support of this bill."

Avard unwittingly waded into the middle of a raging feud among the state's four Second Amendment advocacy groups. On one side was Pro-Gun New Hampshire and the Women's Defense League of New Hampshire; on the other was the Firearms Coalition and Gun Owners of New Hampshire.

The two factions did not see eye to eye on Avard's bill, nor did they agree on a bill sponsored by Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, establishing penalties for municipal and school officials who impose gun-free zones in violation of state law.

The disagreements are about tactics as much as policy.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg of Hudson, president of Pro-Gun New Hampshire, and now a lobbyist, says the high-decibel tactics of the Firearms Coalition and its allies are alienating would-be supporters and hurting the cause.

He points to mailers with language like this: "SB 500 allows sleazy politicians to claim they are pro-gun, when they are actually making New Hampshire law worse … Sen. Avard wants to take us backwards."

Taking aim at Hennessey

When state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, introduced her bill regarding gun-free school zones after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., the Firearms Coalition posted on its Facebook page a photo of Hennessey encircled in what could be considered the view from a gun scope.

"Clinton Supporter Sen. Martha Hennessey thinks gun bans work. Time to stop Martha's Gun Ban," reads the headline.

Alan Rice, president of the Firearms Coalition, says the image was designed to isolate Hennessey in a group photo, not to suggest a view through a scope.

"We had a photograph of her and there were other people in the photograph, so we put a spotlight on Senator Hennessey, like you would use in a theater," he said.

Rice said his group is proud of its opposition to Hennessey's bill, and noted that Pro-Gun New Hampshire did not even testify when the bill was heard in Representatives Hall on March 13.

Clegg says his group made its position clear to lawmakers.

"We didn't like the bill, and everyone knew it," he said, "but we didn't feel the need to stand up in the hearing. Grandstanding is the last thing the Women's Defense League and Pro-Gun want to do."

Packing at the podium

Rice not only testified, he came to the microphone with a pistol holstered at his waist and clearly visible to anyone nearby, including the high school students who came to testify on behalf of the bill.

"Alan knows the rule is no open carried guns in the House chamber," said Clegg. "They either have to be concealed or you can't have them. He purposely took off his jacket with a gun on one side and two magazines on the other looking for a confrontation with security because he knew there were cameras there."

Rice says he was attending a hearing on a Senate bill and thought Senate rules, which are silent on firearms, would apply even though the hearing was in Representatives Hall. "The chief of staff and numerous security people walked past me and didn't say a word," he said. "Had they said anything, I would have complied."

House rules apply to all activities in the House chamber, including hearings on Senate bills, according to Jim Rivers, director of House communications.

"This whole issue with my firearm is being whipped up by Bob Clegg to create a negative perception," says Rice. "For an advocate of firearms ownership to criticize another advocate of firearms ownership for carrying a firearm shows the other person is not really an advocate of firearms ownership."

Who is the true advocate?

Both sides accuse the other of not being true to the cause, in a feud that has generated dueling letters to Senate leadership.

In a February letter to Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, Clegg said the attacks on lawmakers are "the worst I have ever seen."

He wrote that his donations to the Firearms Coalition were used to attack good Second Amendment lawmakers like Rep. Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack. "The money was used to paper his district and send robo calls to his constituents telling them Hinch was anti-Second Amendment, and he wasn't the only pro-Second Amendment candidate to be harassed."

Clegg claims to have been threatened personally.

That prompted a letter to Senate President Chuck Morse from Rice disputing Clegg's letter. "It would appear to me that if a person disagrees with Mr. Clegg's position on legislation, he begins a pattern of character assassination," wrote Rice.

Making no apologies

At a time when gun control advocates are mustering their forces with renewed energy, Second Amendment supporters can ill afford such divisions, according to Executive Councilor David Wheeler, a big Second Amendment supporter and member of the Firearms Coalition.

"It would be nice if we were all pulling in the same direction," he said. "Gun Owners of New Hampshire, which is the NRA affiliate, and the Firearms Coalition work very well together."

Pro-Gun New Hampshire and the Women's Defense League are the outliers, according to Wheeler. "Let me put it this way: They are not where we are. They don't go as far as the other gun groups go," he said.

The Firearms Coalition, which brands itself as "NH's Only No-Compromise Gun Rights Organization," makes no apologies for its take-no-prisoners approach.

"We tried to work with Avard, but he wouldn't work with us, so we went directly to gun owners through email and postal mail," says Rice. "Bob Clegg disagrees with that, and that's fine. Not all groups do mail. Some work within the State House and talk with elected officials, but other groups like ours feel it's more productive to inform grassroots gun owners."

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