After the N.H. Firearms Coalition (NHFC) brought a banner and signs with images of Democratic Statehouse lawmakers and a Nazi symbol to a committee hearing last week, the N.H. Democratic Party filed a formal complaint with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office Thursday.
The signs showed the faces of two Keene legislators, Sen. Jay V. Kahn and Rep. Donovan Fenton, alongside other Democrats next to a swastika and flags from other fascist regimes.
The signs carried into the room read, “There’s no law quite like a red flag law,” and featured flags from the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, along with present-day China.
Images of the posters and protest were shared on the NHFC’s Facebook page.
While neither Kahn nor Fenton sits on the committee, cartoons of their faces and those of nine other Democrats sponsoring a gun-control bill, House Bill 687, were featured on the posters in protest of the legislation.
State Sen. Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough was also one of the Democrats depicted.
The bill being debated at the Oct. 30 House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing proposes a standard version of what is commonly referred to as a “red flag law,” aiming to stop potential mass shooters by allowing family members to direct law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms if they believe a loved one to be a danger to themselves or others.
The N.H. Democratic Party is filing its complaint under state election law on the grounds that the NHFC did not disclose the name of the organization on the signs. The placards were carried by a half dozen gun rights activists in the hearing room, according to a Concord Monitor report.
The complaint alleges the gun-rights group violated RSA 664:14, which states that, for political advertising for or against a measure, “the name of the enterprise or organization shall be indicated and the chairman or treasurer of the enterprise shall sign his name and address.”
Election law in New Hampshire is handled by the Secretary of State’s Office, with cases going through the State’s Ballot Law Commission, Superior Court and Supreme Court.
NHDP Chairman Raymond Buckley signed the complaint, and pointed to what he described as hypocrisy in the use of the Nazi signage.
“The New Hampshire gun lobby made heinous signs calling our Democratic legislators Nazis, but they were too scared to own up to their hateful rhetoric and put their name on it,” Buckley said in a statement. “This is a new low for the gun lobby, and it’s also against the law.”
NHFC Secretary JR Hoell of Dunbarton, a former state representative, called the filing "a seriously frivolous complaint" in an interview Thursday. He cited a passage from Article 30 in the state constitution's Bill of Rights, that “The freedom of deliberation, speech, and debate, in either House of the Legislature, is so essential to the rights of the people, that it cannot be the foundation of any action, complaint, or prosecution, in any other Court or place whatsoever.”
Hoell also described the Democrats’ legal action as an affront on another set of rights.
“This is our First Amendment right, and the Democrats want to shut down our Second as well,” Hoell said. An email Hoell had sent to The Sentinel in response to an inquiry from a reporter Wednesday was misdirected in the paper's email system and not received by press time.
Fenton, in a text message to The Sentinel Wednesday evening, expressed shock at the display by the protesters.
“It’s despicable and vile,” Fenton wrote. “I was stunned that they allowed that in the committee hearing. To compare gun safety with Nazis is just insane.”
Kahn said further steps need to be taken in the incident’s wake.
“I’ve consulted with Statehouse chief of police and House and Senate legal staff about the prohibition on posters, signs in Senate and House chambers,” Kahn said Wednesday night. “So those exist, and committee chairs need to enforce those rules.
“I consider the use of the swastika as a symbol of hatred,” Kahn continued, “and potentially in violation of state hate-speech statutes.”
The committee voted in a 10-10 tie on House Bill 687, sending it to the House floor for a vote without recommendation.
This article has been changed to add comments from NHFC Secretary JR Hoell.