For the past few decades, it’s been presumed New Hampshire’s schools — and student transportation vehicles — were gun-free zones. Federal law calls for schools to enact such policies or forfeit federal funds, and many districts have done so.
Then along came the overly-ardent Second Amendment enthusiasts of the 2018 N.H. Legislature. Upset that the town of Milford had the audacity to ban target shooting on town property, and that Lebanon’s school board had approved a policy banning guns on school grounds and at school events — all this in the wake of the horrific Parkland, Fla., school shooting — a group of lawmakers sought to make clear just who controls gun laws in New Hampshire.
State law allows only the Legislature to enact laws, giving school and municipal leaders the ability to act on only very specific issues. RSA 159:26, added as an amendment to an unrelated bill in 2003, specifies that towns, schools, counties and such cannot regulate firearms in any way.
We’d like to think common sense would dictate the law allow for designating schools as safe zones or limiting shooting guns on town land, but apparently not. House Bill 1749 would have strengthened RSA 159:26 by adding $5,000 fines for any individual officials who enact such policies. Fortunately the bill was pushed off for interim study.
But that means it could resurface. And while it didn’t have enough backing in 2018 to pass, other gun-related bills have been both passed and signed in recent years, virtually along party lines, with the Republican-majority House and Senate backing them and Gov. Chris Sununu signing them. Allowing almost anyone to carry concealed firearms into most public spaces without first obtaining a permit is one example. As a result, we believe the state is less safe today.
So after the shift in majorities of both legislative chambers last November, legislative leaders set out to make clear school districts have the right to keep their property free from unwanted firearms.
Last week, the House took a step toward safer schools, approving House Bill 564, which would ban firearms on public school property, including buildings, grounds, school buses and vans. It would make exceptions for police, active military, resource officers or anyone authorized by the school board.
The 213-159 vote was pretty much along party lines. Only one Republican voted for the measure, which now goes to the Senate. House Majority leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, said the bill would essentially codify federal safety regulations in state law.
“Our cities and towns currently have no authority to enact firearm prohibitions in our schools and local police do not possess the authority to enforce federal law with appropriate penalties,” he noted.
Zandra Rice Hawkins, state director of GunSense NH, said: “We need to make sure our local school districts and police departments have the tools they need to deter a dangerous situation before it becomes a deadly one.”
That’s on point. If the mission of public school officials is to educate the state’s children, an underlying truth is that cannot be done effectively if those children — or the faculty and staff of the schools — are endangered by the presence of weapons that have no business in a school setting.
The Senate ought to approve HB 564, and Gov. Sununu should sign it. If, as the case was made a year ago, school officials have no authority under current state law to safeguard their charges, lawmakers granting them that right now would alleviate any concern that they’re overstepping their bounds.