CONCORD — The emotional and divisive issue of gun control drew large crowds of passionate speakers from both sides of the debate to the State House on Wednesday, as lawmakers held public hearings on four gun-related bills.
On the day before the Feb. 14 anniversary of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings, people jostled for space in the hearing rooms and spilled out into the hallways as testimony got underway on bills to allow gun-free school zones, background checks for all commercial sales and waiting periods for gun purchases.
The House Education Committee was expecting to wrap up its hearing on two bills regarding gun-free school zones by noon, but as of lunchtime the committee still had 30 speakers waiting in line.
That hearing continued throughout the day, while at the same time the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony on two other bills.
HB 109 would require a criminal background check for any commercial firearms sales or transfers. The bill excludes private sales, and is designed to close what gun-control advocates call the “gun show loophole.”
HB 514 would require a waiting period of seven days, excluding weekends and legal holidays, for all firearms sales, except under certain circumstances. The purchase of a rifle or shotgun by someone who completed a 16-hour hunter safety course would be exempt, for example.
Some of the most heated testimony came on the two bills regarding gun-free zones. The most expansive of the two, HB 564, would declare school zones throughout the state “School Safe Zones,” where possession of firearms, concealed or otherwise, would be forbidden.
HB 101 is the latest iteration of an unsuccessful bill that was filed last year by Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, in the wake of the Parkland shooting. It would allow a school district to adopt and enforce a policy regulating firearms “within its jurisdiction.” The state currently retains the exclusive right to enact any gun-related legislation.
Barrett M. Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said his members, representing 160 school districts across the state, are as divided as the general public on the issue.
At a Jan. 26 meeting of delegates, he said, 58 boards were represented, with 25 voting to support resolutions in favor of gun-free zones determined by local officials, while 33 voted against.
“These were the third resolutions in three years on guns, and in each case, membership chose not to adopt,” said Christina. “Our membership has spoken. It was a close vote. If we were to extrapolate the votes of local school boards, we’d find it similar to a citizen poll — half on one side, half on the other.”
A great divide
Those divisions were evident throughout the day.
“Bottom line is that by disarming the law-abiding, only the criminals will be armed and the lives of our children will be less safe than where we are today. Passing an emotional feel-good measure that actually puts lives at greater risk is completely unacceptable,” said former state Rep. J.R. Hoell, speaking for the N.H. Firearms Coalition.
“We protect our banks, our politicians and our celebrities with firearms but society has allowed the children in our schools to go unprotected and this bill would make the problem worse, not better.”
Manchester Democratic Rep. Mary Heath, prime sponsor of HB 564, is a former educator and deputy commissioner in the Department of Education, took the opposing view.
“As an educator, I always told my students and their families, you are safe at school. I can’t say that anymore and it breaks my heart when I hear my own granddaughter say she is afraid to go to school,” she said.
Many speakers challenged the right of the state Legislature to make gun control laws, given the 2008 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller.
In that decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for private use, not only in connection with service in a militia.
Supreme Court ruling
Peter Fairchild of Concord urged lawmakers to read Scalia’s ruling, which also states that Second Amendment rights are not unlimited, but subject to reasonable restrictions.
“Both rights and restrictions are constitutional,” he said. “You have every right to discuss and consider these laws. Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t.”
If the bills pass the Democratic-dominated Legislature, they are most certainly likely to face a veto from Gov. Chris Sununu, who has said on several occasions that he thinks the gun laws now on the books in New Hampshire are adequate.
“These bills are an unnecessary attempt to solve a problem that, quite frankly, doesn’t exist in our state and has the potential to make criminals out of responsible gun owners,” said Republican House Minority Leader Rep. Dick Hinch of Merrimack. “The provisions in these bills do nothing to alleviate the concerns of the proponents, just cause more red tape and are intrusive to the rights of law-abiding citizens.”