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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Recent killings in NH renew debate about gun laws

April in New Hampshire was punctuated by a series of fatal gunshots.

In Greenland, a police chief was shot to death on April 12. A woman was killed and so was the gunman. Four other police officers were injured.

The next day, a 9-year-old boy in Hollis died of a gunshot wound to the head.

In Chesterfield, a small town near Brattleboro, Vt., one man was found dead on a dirt road and another injured from gunshots.

In the North Country town of Dalton, two men were killed in an apparent murder-suicide and a third was hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

Just a dozen miles away, another man was shot to death in Lancaster and police found two more bodies, a man and wife, dead in a burned-out trailer.

Farther south, along the state border with Vermont in Grantham, a woman was found dead of multiple gunshots to the head, her husband charged with the crime.

In the next town of Springfield, two more men were killed in an apparent murder-suicide.

In all, 13 people were killed in these shootings.

When all the smoke cleared, state residents were left to mourn and reflect on the bloodiest month in recent history.

Around the state, flags flew at half mast, and at the Statehouse, lawmakers set aside politics for mourning.

“This is just a very difficult time for us to consider all of this,” Sen. Jim Luther, R-Hollis, a gun-rights supporter, said at the start of May, voting to table a bill proposing to make concealed firearm permits voluntary.

But while the Legislature held off, gun owners, police officers and others around the state have been left to debate the changing role of guns in the state landscape.

New Hampshire traditionally has been viewed as one of the country’s most gun-friendly states. Earlier this year, the Brady Campaign, a national gun violence prevention coalition, ranked New Hampshire 27th in the strength of its gun laws.

“We’ve always been pretty good about it. There’s an understanding here of people’s rights,” said Mitch Kopacz, president of the Gun Owners of New Hampshire, a statewide firearms group.

And over the last few years, the Legislature has enacted a series of gun laws that have strengthened those rights. According to police officers from across the state, those changes have hurt the state’s public safety net.

“We’ve seen a huge change in our gun laws in New Hampshire,” Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate said Friday, referring to the concealed permit proposal, among others.

“We’ve definitely seen a push to lessen (them),” said Crate, chairman of the of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police Legislative Committee. “What effect that will have, we don’t know yet. … We’ll have to see.”

NH’s love of guns

As a largely rural state, New Hampshire has a long history with firearms. But it wasn’t until 1982 that lawmakers wrote gun rights into the state Constitution.

That year, lawmakers added clause 2A to the state’s governing document, declaring the right of all residents to “keep and bear arms in defense of themselves, their families, their property and the state.”

“People think it goes back forever, but it’s not that long ago,” Kopacz said.

State law allows residents to buy and possess rifles and other “long” guns without a permit or license, and residents, aside from felons, don’t need a permit to carry a loaded weapon openly in public – only when hidden or concealed, according to state law.

Because permits aren’t required, the number of rifles or long guns around the state isn’t available, but according to local police departments, officers have issued nearly 12,000 concealed permits to local residents over the last four years.

In Nashua, officials issued 793 permits in 2011, up from 659 in 2008, according to department records. Hudson police issued 316 last year, up from 235 in 2008. And in Milford, authorities issued 258 last year, up from 140 in 2008.

Under the law, gun owners are required to renew their concealed permits every four years, and convicted felons, or those convicted of domestic violence, are prohibited from owning firearms.

These laws have been a main point of contention in recent years at the Statehouse, where Republicans have made gun rights a central part of their agenda since they returned to power in the 2010 elections.

Soon after the 2011 session started, the House of Representatives voted in one of its first actions to reverse a law prohibiting weapons at the Statehouse, and in the months since, it has taken up proposals to allow guns on college campuses and to permit loaded rifles and shotguns in vehicles, among dozens of other bills.

Many of these proposals stalled in the Legislature. But last year, one proposal in particular drew fire as it passed into law.

The “Stand Your Ground” bill, which allows residents to stand strong and use violence when confronted with deadly force, drew heated debate last year as the Republican-led Legislature overcame a veto from Gov. John Lynch to pass the matter into law.

Public safety officers from across the state warned that such a law could lead to more gang and street violence.

“It certainly promotes an atmosphere that could be a recipe for disaster,” Merrimack Police Chief Mark Doyle said Friday.

But lawmakers passed the law nonetheless, overcoming the governor’s veto. The law went into effect this year.

“That was a real victory here,” said Robert Clegg, president of Pro-Gun New Hampshire, a gun rights lobbying group.

“We have a concern that turning your back and running away from somebody makes you really vulnerable,” Clegg said. This law “said you could confront the person and not put yourself in more danger.”

Defense or more violence?

The “Stand Your Ground” law has drawn renewed attention around the country since the February shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. But following April’s wave of violence, New Hampshire residents have kept their focus in-state.

Last week, Luther and other state senators cited the recent spate of violence in deciding to table the concealed permit proposal.

The bill, H.B. 536, passed the House. But the Senate voted May 2 to table it, likely killing the proposal for this session, at least.

“If it had been any other time, I probably would have voted for the bill, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it,” said Sen. Jack Barnes, R-Raymond, who voted against the bill. “The timing was completely wrong.”

But as time moves on, sponsors and supporters hope the matter will find renewed support for the proposal.

The Greenland shooting, however tragic, doesn’t change either the constitutionality or the need to do away with the concealed permit process, supporters said.

“The criminals are already carrying,” said state Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, who sponsored the proposal. “This would give citizens who are law-abiding the right to defend themselves.”

But police around the state disagree, fearing that erasing the concealed handgun permit would remove another level of the public safety net.

Permitting “gives us an opportunity to vet these folks to make sure … they’ve passed the litmus test, that they’re suitable to carry,” said Doyle, the Merrimack chief.

“If you walk into a crowd (carrying openly), everybody can see you have a gun, so there’s not much chance of anything happening,” said Crate, of Enfield. “It’s just another level.”

The Senate could take up the matter over the coming weeks. But with the state still recovering from the recent shootings, the issue is likely to die with the end of the session.

Supporters said they would reintroduce the matter next year. But as the divide continues to grow over the guns issue, state residents will have larger decisions to make, Doyle said.

“Really, we have to decide what kind of society we’re going to be,” he said. “Is it really worth it to have a society where we don’t have these controls or safeguards in place? … Time will tell whether it’s a move in the right direction.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.