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New Hampshire GOP Playing Defense Over Gun Debate

It’s not often that a political candidate announces his or her platform, and then is immediately challenged by passionate opponents.

But last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand stood on the steps of the Lebanon City Hall taking questions - not from reporters, but passionate gun rights advocates.

The unusual public back and forth went on for nearly an hour. Marchand pitched ideas like universal background checks and banning semi-automatic weapons, and the handful of opponents in the audience would debate him.

The mass shooting in Parkland Florida has brought the country back in the throes of a debate over how to stop gun violence, and it’s playing out in unique ways in New Hampshire’s race for governor. And if the last two weeks are any indication, that debate is likely to remain heated through the November election.

The gun rights advocates who came out to oppose Marchand’s event said they needed to be there to defend their 2nd amendment rights, and they said a conservative radio host named Keith Hanson encouraged listeners to come out.

Hanson’s morning show airs on 99.7 WNTK in the Upper Valley, a station that also broadcasts national conservative hosts like Rush Limbaugh.  

Credit Lauren Chooljian / NHPR
Gun rights advocates responded to the conservative call to protest at a Marchand campaign event in Lebanon last week

And the morning of Marchand’s gun announcement, Hanson told listeners that the New Hampshire Republican Party had called him to encourage people to be a “counter presence” in Lebanon.

“If you think that gun control is not gonna become a major, major talking point of the gubernatorial elections here in NH during the next cycle, you got another thing coming,” Hanson said.

One of his guests that morning was New Hampshire GOP chair Jeanie Forrester, who thanked Hanson for spreading the word about the Democrat’s gun control announcement.

“I appreciate the fact that you've been promoting that counter presence, I think that’s important to have that silent majority show up and show folks that we do support the 2nd Amendment, it is important and we can’t be pushed around."

This all occurred in the span of a few hours last week, and it provides New Hampshire voters with a snapshot of what they can expect from this year’s gubernatorial race: Democrats putting gun control the center of their platform, with the state Republican party eager to fire up their base over the 2nd Amendment.

Another example of this theme came Monday, when the New Hampshire GOP launched a new campaign website called as a response to Marchand’s gun control platform.

The site prominently displays black and white photos of Marchand and former Democratic State Senator Molly Kelly, who is reportedly considering running. It calls on Republicans to organize against “an unnecessary attack on our second amendment rights,” a sentiment displayed in all upper case letters.

“Democrats have decided this is their political moment to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, that’s the wrong approach,” NH GOP spokesman Patrick Hynes said. “We’re gonna be consistent with that message throughout the coming weeks and months.”

Some of this messaging has already popped up in some of Republican Governor Chris Sununu comments about guns, though it’s not as harsh, or intense as the Stop the Gun Grab site. When asked on NHPR’sThe Exchange, Sununu eased into the argument by describing an assault weapons ban as a “slippery slope” toward taking away all kinds of weapons.

The New Hampshire Democratic party calls this messaging “fear-mongering,” and they’re quick to point out anytime Republicans at the statehouse vote against gun control members.

Marchand plans to take his gun control platform on the road again -- he was in Keene earlier this week and he’ll head to Dover on Friday afternoon. And he also called into conservative Keith Hanson’s radio show to talk about guns, and Hanson left an open invitation for a point by point debate in a future program.


Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.

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