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Lawmakers support right of colleges to impose gun-free zones

By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau

February 22. 2018 9:58PM
Gun control advocates lined the halls of the State House on Thursday, as gun-related bills were debated in the House and Senate. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD - A bill to prohibit the state university and community college systems from establishing gun-free zones on their campuses failed in the House of Representatives on Thursday, as gun control advocates crowded the halls of the State House and cheered from the House gallery.

The House voted 231-110 to defeat the measure, HB 1542, which would strike down gun-free zones on the state-run campuses and block trustees or administrators from imposing them in the future.

Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, arguing in support of the bill, said only the state has the right to impose firearms regulations, and campus officials are exceeding their authority.

Students have the right to carry firearms for self-defense, he said, accusing university and community college officials of imposing “illegal policies that are prohibiting law-abiding adults from making their own personal protection choices.”

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, pointed out that the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee he chairs voted 15-5 against the bill.

“If there is an active shooter incident on a college campus with thousands of students, and 100 of them have firearms, it would be a disaster,” he said. “Law enforcement coming into a place like a school with half a dozen people with guns drawn is not a good scenario.”

The vote in the House came less than an hour after the Senate delayed action on a similar measure, SB 357, relative to safe school zones.

SB 357 was initially filed to require school employees to report crimes that would prevent a person from being hired as a teacher, but was amended at the last minute by Democrats.

Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, introduced an amendment on Thursday morning that would allow school boards to prohibit firearms in safe school zones.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, then moved to have it referred back to committee for a public hearing on Hennessey's amendment.

Democrats reluctantly agreed to the motion, which passed unanimously.

“I am supporting this motion to re-refer, but I would just like to say I am disappointed we are not addressing this issue sooner. In the meantime, people are dying, and we have a lot of people outside who are worried about that,” said Hennessey, alluding to the protesters in the nearby hallway and gallery.

A hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Hennessey's amendment is anticipated for the first week of March.

The question of whether municipalities or school districts have the legal right to impose firearms restrictions has divided lawmakers in both the House and Senate.

Two weeks ago, the House voted to send a bill (HB 1749) to interim study that would impose penalties on communities like Milford or Lebanon that create their own firearms regulations.

Milford selectmen banned target shooting on town-owned land, and the Lebanon School Board is attempting to ban firearms on school property and at school events that take place on non-school property.

The House Committee on Municipal and County Government, which voted 18-2 for continued study of HB 1749, is expected to deal with various amendments on the size of the penalties and how they would be imposed.

“This way the bill is not lost, the amendments can be considered and possibly combined, and the entire bill can receive the attention it deserves. It is expected to result in a correctly worded report to be presented as a bill for future action,” according to Rep. Frank McCarthy, R-Conway.

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