Gun protesters at State House

Protesters on both sides of the gun control issue were making their case at the State House on Wednesday, as House lawmakers debated a ban on firearms in the House chamber and gallery. Dave Solomon / Union Leader

CONCORD — The House of Representatives voted 220-163 Wednesday to ban firearms in the House chamber and gallery as one of the first acts of the newly seated Democratic majority.

Republicans lined up after the vote to sign a letter of protest to be included in the House permanent record.

“This amendment to House rules prohibits law-abiding citizens from exercising their constitutionally protected right, and it lacks the necessary detail in process and procedures for the storage of weapons,” said Minority Leader Dick Hinch of Merrimack.

Opponents of the rule change cited threats made against representatives and their families in a highly charged political environment.

“There have been several instances where members of this body have been threatened with physical violence against them or their families. This amendment discourages and deters members from possessing a firearm while traveling to and from the State House and their vehicle,” said Hinch. “In our capacity as identifiable public officials in an environment of heightened political rhetoric, we are at greater risk for violence.”

Democrats say the rules change is a return to a past practice that Republican majorities changed in 2011 and again in 2015.

“The amendment adopted today simply restores the House rule that was in place for decades under the leadership of both parties, which upholds public safety by forbidding deadly weapons in the House chamber,” said House Majority Leader Doug Ley of Jaffrey.

“State House security personnel are armed and trained to ensure the safety of our Legislature and the public. No one needs to bring their gun on the House floor any more than they need it in a courtroom or on an airplane,” he asserted.

Ley claimed — without citing a specific incident — that since Republicans first changed the rule in 2011 there have been numerous instances of mishandled firearms on State House grounds.

“Guns have been dropped in packed committee rooms on multiple occasions,” he said. “Given the number of people who frequent the State House on a daily basis — including the thousands of fourth-grade students who come each year to learn about state government — policies that allow these incidents to occur are clearly unacceptable.”

The vote was largely along party lines, although four Democrats voted with the Republicans against the ban: Thomas Buco of Conway, Mark King of Nashua, Peter Leishman of Peterborough and Barbara Shaw of Manchester.

One Republican, retired judge Edward Gordon of Bristol, voted with the Democrats.

Republican Rep. John Burt of Goffstown said he would ignore the ban, as he had in the past.

“As in 2013 and 2014 when (Democratic Speaker Terie) Norelli passed the same rule, I still will carry as I have and always will,” Burt said.

Democratic Rep. Tim Smith of Manchester described how the first firearms ban in the House was passed in 1971, after the Speaker at that time said he received a death threat from another lawmaker seen in the chamber with a gun.

“If there is a threat of gun violence in this chamber, that threat does not come from a nut in the gallery,” he said.

Smith later apologized.

“I absolutely did not mean to suggest that anyone in the chamber now is a nut,” he said. “I was trying to highlight and illustrate the historical reason this rule was put in place.”

Harassment awareness

The House also voted 284-92 to require every lawmaker to undergo sexual harassment awareness training. The change was unanimously recommended by the Rules Committee.

Hollis Republican Jim Belanger argued against the measure.

“I was elected by my constituents, not the Rules Committee,” he said. “Is there a need for training? Maybe so. I won’t dispute that. But should it be mandatory? Absolutely not. I will probably attend the training, but vote against the mandatory rule.”

After his election as Speaker, Democratic Rep. Steve Shurtleff of Penacook said he would make sexual harassment awareness training a top priority for the House, in the wake of several complaints and investigations in recent years.