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Senate defeats effort to empower school boards to declare gun-free zones

State House Bureau

March 21. 2018 8:45PM
Students from Concord High greeted state Senators on their way into the Senate chamber on Wednesday, urging them to support the right of school boards to declare gun-free zones in schools. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD — The state Senate voted 14-9 along party lines on Thursday to defeat a proposal from Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, that would allow school boards to impose gun-free zones on school property.

Several senators from both sides joined the two-hour debate, as a crowd of students from Concord High School watched from the Senate gallery.

The students came hoping to see the proposal pass on the Senate floor despite a 3-2 negative committee vote on March 14, the day of student walkouts in support of gun control in New Hampshire and across the country.

“This is clearly one of the biggest issues we are facing right now,” said Hennessey in introducing her amendment. “It’s in the news all the time, what’s going on in schools, so I understand fevers are high.”

New Hampshire law reserves for the legislature the exclusive right to enact any laws regarding the use and control of firearms, although some school boards and towns have enacted restrictions of their own with no penalties from the state.

Hennessey’s amendment to a bill regarding background checks for school employees, SB 357, would have transferred some of that authority to local school boards, at least as regards school property.

“This brings local control. What it does not do, but what it has been accused of doing over and over again … it does not take guns away from law-abiding citizens,” she said. “Should we not allow school boards to create the most positive possible learning environment? They know their towns, they know their schools.”

While Democrats argued that schools would be safer as gun-free zones, Republicans argued such a move would jeopardize safety.

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, compared the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed and 17 more were wounded, with the shooting at a high school in Maryland on Tuesday. In Maryland, the shooter was killed by an officer after wounding two students.

“I see a disparity between one school where there was no one there to protect our kids, and another where someone had the training and the equipment, and although it was still a tragedy it was not anything like the tragedy we saw at Parkland,” he said.

The debate also centered on the issue of local control versus the state’s exclusive authority over firearms regulations.

“This is not about gun control, it’s about local control,” said Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield. “Local school boards can decide today what the soda policy is, or the cell phone policy, but they cannot decide the gun policy within the doors of their building. That makes no sense, because we are focused on ideology, not practicality.”

Sen. William Gannon, R-Sandown, credited the students in the gallery for their involvement, but said not all students are of the same opinion.

“I asked my two teenage daughters, are you going to feel safer with this law, and my 14-year-old said, ‘Who are we keeping out? The bad guys are going to have guns.' She said she would feel safer if there were trained staff members.”

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