Politics

N.H. lawmakers allow concealed weapons in House chambers

The New Hampshire State House

Pamela Wright

The New Hampshire State House

CONCORD, N.H. — For nearly a decade, New Hampshire’s Legislature has maintained an on-again, off-again relationship with side arms, removing and reinstating various rules about where lawmakers can carry guns while conducting legislative business.

This week, things changed again when the Republican-led House of Representatives voted 228 to 149 to allow concealed weapons in its chambers.

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The measure was among the first items considered by the new Legislature, and, according to its supporters, will make the State House safer and allow members to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

“We’re not talking about the Wild West,” said state Representative Fred Rice, a Republican from Hampton. “We’re not talking about irresponsible people running around waving guns in the air. . . . We’re asking for the right to do what we do in our daily lives.”

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Guns and other weapons were first banned from the House chambers in the early 1970s, and the restriction was later extended to include the entire legislative campus.

The ban was lifted in 2006 and then reinstated three years later.

In 2010, Republican leadership again removed gun restrictions in the State House and its adjacent buildings.

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In 2012, newly elected Democratic leadership in the House instituted a partial ban on weapons, prohibiting lawmakers and others from carrying in parts of the building controlled by the House.

“This has been somewhat of a political football in recent years,” said Jim Rivers, communications director for the House speaker’s office. “We’ll wait until 2016 and see what happens.”

The rule change was proposed by Representative John Burt, a Republican from Goffstown who says he often carries a concealed weapon. He said he appreciates the work of the armed police officers who patrol the legislative campus, but worries they may sometimes need help handling threats.

“Where I have an issue is if a nut with a gun comes into this chamber,” he said. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, whether it is a state trooper or a fellow representative.”

Under the rules adopted Wednesday, anyone who is legally permitted to carry a concealed weapon may continue to do so on the House floor and adjacent rooms. Guns must remain hidden at all times.

“You can’t walk around with a holster and a sidearm on your hip,” Rivers said. “You have to be somewhat discrete.”

The Legislature’s gun rules were the subject of vigorous public debate in the days before the vote. Minority leader Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat from Penacook and a former supervisory deputy US marshal, said he supports the Second Amendment but fears that allowing guns would make the State House unwelcoming to visitors.

He and other supporters of gun restrictions are especially concerned about the elementary school students who tour the State House almost daily when the Legislature is in session.

“I understand that under the new rule weapons must be covered, but we’ve had several incidents where House members have dropped guns,” he said. “I could see something like that happening or someone inadvertently displaying a gun around students.”

This week’s vote makes New Hampshire one of at least seven states that permit concealed weapons in their legislative buildings, according to research conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2011. Guns are not allowed at the Massachusetts State House.

New Hampshire is also one of 25 states without metal detectors in its capitol, according to the conference — something some lawmakers say makes gun bans hard to enforce.

“For the last two years, no one has known if I’m carrying a concealed weapon or not,” Rice said. “For the next two years, I guarantee you won’t know if I’m carrying a concealed weapon regardless of what the rule is.”

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