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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Living free more than state motto

New Hampshire is the only state in the nation to not require adults to wear seat belts when driving a motor vehicle.

A motorcyclist 18 and older can ride without a helmet. And the state’s gun laws are considered among the most liberal in the United States.

More than six decades after New Hampshire adopted Gen. John Stark’s saying “Live Free or Die” as its official motto, the Granite State still appears to have a rock-solid advantage over most states in preserving and promoting personal freedom.

Some libertarians contend the state could improve its standing as the home of the free. Marijuana, for one, should be decriminalized, they say. And a university study of personal freedom also found New Hampshire lacking in some areas, including parental control of home schooling. But with recent legislative actions aimed at improving individual rights – including the law that took effect last year allowing gay marriage – New Hampshire is a place to live if you want to live free, they say.

“There is a culture of liberty here. I think a lot of people appreciate these liberties,” Free State Project President Carla Gericke said.

Free State Project made headlines in 2003 when members from around the country chose New Hampshire as their future home, with the goal of having 20,000 libertarians influencing state politics and culture.

It’s been a slow road for the Free State Project; just under 1,000 members have moved here. But at least a dozen of them now serve as state legislators. And Gericke says the movement has a positive outlook for future growth, especially because the libertarian climate remains strong in New Hampshire.

“It’s always about choice,” said Gericke, who lives in West Lebanon. “It’s not about trying to change things radically. It’s about choice.”

And there’s a lot to choose in New Hampshire.

Still living free

Hunters don’t have to wear blaze orange clothing. Residents who own vehicles outright aren’t required to purchase insurance. And visitors to the Statehouse can carry a firearm inside.

“I still think New Hampshire is a very ‘Live Free or Die’ state,” House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Republican, said. “We’re always looking at ways we can shrink government back to its appropriate role to allow people the freedom to perform their passions.”

For Bettencourt and many others, government regulations infringe on those freedoms. New Hampshire residents have largely demonstrated they can coexist civilly when they have the right to decide how to live their lives, libertarian-minded people say.

Bettencourt says the ability to live responsibly and freely is rooted in the state’s Yankee heritage, a collective ethos that disapproves of government looking over peoples’ shoulders.

That mindset is nowhere more apparent than in a motor vehicle. Adults 18 and older do not have to buckle up in New Hampshire, the only state to have such a law.

“I know a lot of people around the nation who scoff at that notion … and we have the safest highways in the nation,” Bettencourt said.

Each year, the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency sends observers to dozens of spots along busy roadways all over the state to count how many drivers and front-seat passengers are wearing seatbelts. If observers can’t count every person they see in a 40-minute span, they start over with a 20-minute session to ensure validity, according to agency coordinator Peter Thomson.

This year, 75 percent of observed motorists and passengers wore a seat belt, Thomson said. In a state where an unbuckled seat belt symbolizes choice, Thomson is delighted with that statistic, although his agency strives to have every motorist strapped in.

“The governors I have worked with over the years haven’t taken a stand on making a mandatory seat belt law,” Thomson said. “And the Legislature hasn’t for the most part. Some years, the House has put together a bill for a mandatory seat belt law, but it gets bogged down in the Senate.”

Statistics seem to bear out Bettencourt’s view of New Hampshire’s motor vehicle safety record.

The U.S. Census Bureau had New Hampshire tied for sixth place for the lowest motor vehicle fatality rate in 2009. As of Tuesday, 76 people were killed on New Hampshire roadways this year, 40 fewer deaths than at the same point last year, Thomson said.

Guns and gay marriage

Another law aimed at personal freedom has started to take shape in the Legislature. A House bill would allow any resident not in prison or jail, or under a court order to be in a mental institution, the right to carry an open or concealed firearm without a license.

The bill calls this a “natural right.” Anyone who interferes with this “right to carry” faces criminal penalties.

Bettencourt said the bill has moved out of committee, and the House will put it to a floor vote next year.

“Northern New Englanders … are a very protective lot of parents who bring up their children respecting guns and enjoying the outdoors,” he said. “It’s part of New Hampshire’s character.”

With all these laws enshrining personal freedom, it would be safe to guess that New Hampshire is one of the country’s most libertarian-leaning states, especially when considering the Free State Project selected it over the other 49 states.

But surprisingly, when it comes to personal liberties, New Hampshire doesn’t crack the top 10, according to Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project and a researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. It ranked 11th in the category, he said.

New Hampshire ranked first in the Mercatus Center’s study on overall freedom among the 50 states, Sorens said. But that ranking was based largely on New Hampshire’s low taxation, he said. Personal freedoms are another matter, he said.

Home-schooling, property, pot

The state fares well on gun laws and the recent law allowing gay marriage, Sorens said. But New Hampshire still has a heavily regulated environment for home schooling, he said.

Home-schooled children routinely have to take state standardized tests, and parents have to keep a daily record of attendance and materials used – two criteria not followed in many states, he said.

Also, New Hampshire prosecutors can use civil forfeiture to seize assets before an accused criminal is convicted in a trial, Sorens said.

“New Hampshire takes the property and you have to sue to get it back. The burden is on you,” Sorens said, adding that he is not implying the state has abused this authority.

Gericke, of the Free State Project, believes New Hampshire could improve its standing by decriminalizing marijuana.

Last year, the House passed a bill allowing possession of small amounts of marijuana, but Gov. John Lynch threatened to veto it, and the Senate killed it. This year, a House-approved bill to permit medicinal marijuana was tabled by the House and again had Lynch threatening a veto.

Still, despite these shortcomings for libertarians, New Hampshire provides many freedoms unseen elsewhere, Gericke said. For her, the voluntary seat belt law serves as a symbol for this “New Hampshire Advantage.”

“Just about everyone uses one, but the reason for the law is choice,” Gericke said. “The police don’t have a mandatory seat belt law as an excuse to pull you over, and that makes us tangibly freer on that ground.

“People think just because you have this choice, you’re going to make a bad choice. But we, as individuals, can take responsibility for our own actions. It doesn’t have to be the police or state taking that option. Most people can take that option.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-6528 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out McKeon (@Telegraph_AMcK) on Twitter.