CONCORD, N.H. — Dozens of university administrators and law enforcement officers on Thursday opposed a bill in front of a New Hampshire Senate committee to allow guns on all public property, including public universities.
The bill, which passed the House 180-144, would repeal all existing regulations on public property. Any future restrictions would have to be by state statute.
Bill co-sponsor, Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, said the bill would ensure a “patchwork of gun rules” did not exist across the state. Hoell said the state provided the right to bear arms, and that should extend to its universities.
“Maybe we’re not necessarily changing the rules, although changing the perceptions,” Hoell said, “and they [the University System of New Hampshire] are actually accountable to the statutes as they exist.”
Critics raised concerns about safety on college campuses where alcohol, drug use and impulsive behavior are common. Adding guns to the mix, they said, would be “unwise.”
Proponents argue restricting guns on public property violates citizens’ rights to defend themselves.
Law enforcement officials stressed the guns would harm more than help. They would be unlikely to deter sexual assaults, which usually occur between acquaintances, said University of New Hampshire Police Chief Paul Dean, and they would create more confusion in the rare school shooting like Virginia Tech.
“I am deeply worried about adding armed civilians to where my officers face life or death decisions on a college campus,” Dean said.
University system Chancellor Edward Mackay told the committee the biggest danger was a higher suicide rate. More than 25,000 students attempt suicide each year, Mackay said, and in cases involving firearms, 90 percent are successful.
Others focused on the potential change in the campus atmosphere.
Plymouth State University has been at the center of the debate since two pro-gun supporters said they appear with unconcealed loaded rifles on campus in December to protest the university’s gun policy. The university obtained a temporary order barring them from appearing with the guns.
Plymouth State President Sara Jayne Steen said she received hundreds of responses to the protest, most of them opposed to allowing guns on campus. Some parents told Steen they would transfer their students out of the New Hampshire university system if the bill passed.
Rep. Elaine Swinford, R-Center Barnstead, who chaired the House committee that first heard the bill, argued that most USNH students were raised in New Hampshire and had been around firearms their whole life.
“Once they’re 18 they have their own concealed carry permit,” Swinford said.
Manchester Police Chief David Mara said he worried the bill would also allow guns and knives in the 20,000 seat Verizon Center in Manchester. An incident at a large event would cause a lot of harm, he said.
“Somebody fires a shot, whether they’re right or wrong, it doesn’t matter,” Mara said, “What it does is start a stampede. More people are killed or injured at large events like this when people try to escape and get out of there.”
The committee is also considered a bill to change the definition of a loaded gun from rounds in the gun to a round in the chamber. This would allow the gun owner to transport the gun with a clip or magazine inserted.
Critics said this would serve to increase the number of accidental discharges.
The committee voted to recommend an interim study of the two bills, to be voted on by the full Senate. If the motion passes there will be no more action on the bills this session.
The committee did not recommend action on a third bill to make permits to carry concealed weapons optional.
Gov. John Lynch said he would veto the bills if they appeared on his desk.