A gun rights fight is heating up in the “Live Free or Die” state — where citizens can legally go armed without permits — between state lawmakers and local officials over who has the ultimate authority on firearms regulations.
A New Hampshire legislative subcommittee will rule later this month on a bill that allows fines of up to $5,000 against town or city officials who try to push local ordinances that opponents say fly in the face of state and federal firearms statutes.
The bill singles out the town of Milford for banning target shooting on town-owned land and the Lebanon School Board for prohibiting firearms on school property or at school events on nonschool property, but Republican state Rep. J.R. Hoell said they are only the most recent examples of communities thumbing their nose at the constitutions of both the U.S. and New Hampshire.
“It seems to be getting worse,” Hoell said. Drawing a comparison between the First and Second amendments, he added, “How would you feel if all of a sudden Lebanon said the First Amendment doesn’t apply? We don’t do this with any other Constitutional right.
“We have elected officials breaking the law because there are no penalties. This bill corrects that by adding penalties, like we would for any other law,” Hoell, one of the bill’s sponsors, said. “If we’re going to put laws on the books, we expect them to be obeyed. If there are penalties for citizens, there should be penalties for elected officials.”
But Jeff Peavey, the chairman of the Lebanon School Board, defended the district’s right to pass its own laws, noting the prohibition has been in place for years.
“We set our budgets. We have policies on how to govern and how our schools operate. We need to be here to educate in a safe fashion,” Peavey said. “If you had a student in our school and someone came in carrying a gun, how disruptive would that be?”
Milford Board of Selectmen Chairman Mark Fougere argued in legislative testimony last week that the state is overreaching and that the fines are aimed at “stifling reasonable and fair opposition discourse by frightening local officials with sanctions.”
Hoell said fines would be leveled only after local officials violate a clear court order and that they’d be aimed at policymakers, not those ordered to enforce the law, such as police officers.
Still, Fougere said the state is trying to take over control of anything and everything related to guns.
“We are not opposed to the state being the primary regulator of firearms, but we oppose that effort when the proposal is so far reaching that it does not allow for the local communities to protect their citizens in the reasonable use of town land for all,” said Fougere. “Local governing bodies and its citizens understand local matters more than others, and are in a best position to judge the appropriate use of local town owned land than those sitting elsewhere.”
Gun laws in New Hampshire are among the least restrictive in the nation — unlike Massachusetts, which requires training courses and local police approval for anyone seeking to own or carry firearms, and registration of all guns.
Last February, New Hampshire took a further step toward easing gun laws, waiving requirements to obtain a license to conceal carry or open carry firearms in public. Granite Staters aren’t required to obtain a firearms permit or to register their guns, though some do get them to take advantage of reciprocity laws in other states that honor a New Hampshire gun permit — and Massachusetts is not one of them.
There also are no regulations on assault-style rifles, which are banned in Massachusetts.
New Hampshire’s new law waiving the need for a permit to carry also reaffirmed the right for adults (but not students) to have guns on school grounds.
Democratic state Rep. Delmar Burridge, meanwhile, is pushing new restrictions at the state level, though he acknowledges it’s an uphill fight. Burridge dismissed the Republican majority at the State House as “Pistol Pete” vigilantes and “goofy knuckleheads” who think the other side is always out to take their guns away.
“They think they’re better shots than the cops are. I call these guys ‘Walter Mitty’ iterations — they think they’re heroes,” said Burridge.
But Burridge is sponsoring his own bill that would prohibit firearms inside hospitals, churches, polling locations, bars, and state universities and community colleges.
The Republican chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee declared it dead on arrival.
“I don’t think that bill has any chance at all,” said state Rep. David Welch. “Up here, if you’re running a business and you want to ban firearms, just put a sign on the door and ban them.”
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