CONCORD — A policy allowing concealed carry of firearms in the House of Representatives, in effect since 2015, is about to be overturned by the new Democratic majority.
House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, said he expects a motion to restore the ban to be approved by the House Rules Committee on Wednesday and ultimately by the full House when it convenes in January.
Republican minority leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, said he’s disappointed by the move but not surprised.
“Republicans are smart enough to do the math,” he said, alluding to the 233-167 split in the House in favor of Democrats.
“But I would hope all Second Amendment supporters are as outraged as we are. It’s not unexpected but it’s certainly disappointing that they think this is the most pressing issue facing the state … they have to immediately take away our constitutional right to bear arms.”
The House is empowered to make its own rules, despite a state law allowing concealed carry without a permit. Rules changes are usually dealt with in early January, as two-thirds majorities are required for changes after that initial period.
Jan. 18 is the last day this year to amend House rules by vote of a simple majority.
“We’ll be going back to the old policy that was in effect for decades under both Democratic and Republican speakers to keep firearms out of the House chamber,” said Shurtleff.
The policy has changed as majority power shifted from one party to the other in the years since 2011, when Republican Speaker William O’Brien wielded the gavel and led a successful effort to repeal the ban.
It was restored when Democrats won the House majority for two years from 2013-2014, and revoked again under Republican Speaker Shawn Jasper in 2015.
The ban would only apply to the House chamber, known as Representatives’ Hall, unless the Joint Committee on Legislative Facilities takes up the issue.
When the ban has been in effect in the past it has applied to both House and Senate chambers when Democrats had majorities in both, as they do now.
O’Brien says the change will make the State House less safe.
“They are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said. “By removing the right of citizens and legislators to carry firearms they are making it a more dangerous place because it will now be converted into a gun-free zone, and that’s where all these acts of mass murder can occur.
“There’s never been any indication in all the years that I was in Reps Hall that the presence of firearms there, and they were there, were a threat to anyone. If anything, it was a very safe environment because no one would try anything.”
Shurtleff agrees that there haven’t been any problems in the House or Senate with mishandling of firearms, but says there have been incidents in the State House that raised concerns.
Former Rep. Carolyn Halstead, R-Milford, was rushing to a House Education Committee hearing in January 2017 when her loaded revolver fell to the floor of the crowded meeting room in front of surprised lawmakers, witnesses and spectators, including a mother with two pre-school children only a few feet away.
Former Rep. Kyle Tasker accidentally dropped his handgun on the floor of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing room in 2012.
“We’ve had people drop their firearms in other areas of the State House campus, but so far we’ve had no incidents in the chamber itself,” said Shurtleff, “but I do have concerns. In addition to being the place we make laws, it’s also a classroom. We have fourth graders coming in to view us in session and I think like any classroom we don’t want firearms present.”
After a Florida man broke into the State House in the summer of 2016, lawmakers voted to implement several new security measures, including arming the building’s private security force.
“I think there are some Republicans who would understand why we wouldn’t want firearms in the chamber, especially since we now have armed security which we never had previously,” said Shurtleff.