Gun laws are always divisive in the Live Free or Die state, but Tuesday, lawmakers are taking up a bill that is dividing a normally united front in the Republican-controlled state house: Gun rights groups.
The debate has its roots in the Lebanon Middle School cafeteria, seemingly the unlikeliest of places for a political debate to begin, where the Lebanon School Board recently changed their weapons policy. Board members decided to ban guns on school grounds and during school events, a move that brought the ire of some state lawmakers, and opened a conversation about who should make gun laws in New Hampshire.
Jeff Peavey, chair of the Lebanon School Board, wasn’t looking for media attention, in fact he’d much prefer avoid it. But in light of school shootings across the country, including one at a high school in Kentucky the day before he lead the January meeting, he felt it best to ban guns outright.
“Us as a board, and myself as a board member 14 years, we’re here trying to protect our students, staff and faculty from what happened in Kentucky,” Peavey said, leaning into his microphone during a meeting this month.
The federal and state laws around guns in schools interact in complicated ways, but in short, kids can’t have guns at school, but adults who are permitted to carry in New Hampshire can. But that wasn’t tough enough for board members in Lebanon.
Their ban caught the attention of House Rep. J.R. Hoell, and soon the town found its name in the official text of House Bill 1749 - a bill that fines towns for making their own gun laws.
“We want citizens who are elected officials to follow the law, and not break it. That’s not setting a good example,” Hoell said.
The state of New Hampshire only gives some powers to cities, towns and school boards, and Hoell says making gun laws isn’t and shouldn’t one of those powers - banning or restricting gun use is up to either the state or the federal government.
And this is what has Hoell all worked up. It’s less about guns at school and more about who gets to decide who gets to carry a gun. He wants to fine municipalities like Lebanon if they go their own way and potentially get officials kicked out of their posts.
“To prevent the continued lawlessness of elected officials breaking the law, it’s time to put in penalties. We have penalties for all sorts of other statutes, for speeding...but there are no penalties for this existing statute,” Hoell said.
Hoell, a Republican, is also secretary of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition and he’s taught his kids gun safety.
Hoell said this bill is backed by the NRA and Gun Owners of America, both national gun rights groups. But some of his loudest opponents are also Republicans and passionate members of gun rights groups, people who are typically on the same side of gun debates as Hoell and his allies.
But now, it’s gotten to the point where gun activist Susan Olsen said she won’t even greet Hoell in the hallway. Olsen is with the Women’s Defense League and she said has a lot of issues with this bill. On the one hand, Olsen said most small town officials aren’t trying to start trouble.
“Most local government, they’re just typically volunteers, normal schlubs that want to try and make their towns better,” she said. “Sometimes they do make mistakes...because they don't know any better. I don’t know of deliberate, malevolent law making.”
In Olsen’s corner of this fight is former State Senator Bob Clegg, who is a member of yet another gun group called Pro-Gun New Hampshire. Both Olsen and Clegg said they have a big problem with some of the finer print in Hoell’s bill: it gives sole authority over firearms to the state legislature, meaning no executive or judicial branch as checks and balances. It also strikes any language about the state having to follow federal gun laws.
Just the idea of all this pulls the color out of Clegg’s face.
“Everyone makes law around here - I won’t say everybody - but they have a tendency to make laws believing that they’re forever going to be in charge. And that’s not the case,” Clegg said.
In other words, Clegg said the statehouse isn’t always going to be run by Republicans, so the idea of giving all the lawmaking power to one body that could potentially be lead by Democrats in the future, doesn’t sit well with him. He and Olsen are happy with the system as is.
All these opposing parties do agree about one thing: Lebanon is breaking the law.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, school board member Richard Milius is exasperated, as he believes school officials should be able to make their own school rules about guns.
“It seems to me when the kids are here, we’re taking on that role of protecting them just as their parents would, and I don’t think we should have the uncertainty of any one walking into a building packing heat,” he said.
But for now, the school board is working closely with their lawyer to come up with a policy that doesn’t break any laws.