GOP leaders hail gun OK in N.H. capitol

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. — As a state representative, Al Baldasaro says he has been physically threatened multiple times. But he has always felt a measure of safety because New Hampshire’s laws permit him to carry a concealed weapon.

“This is why we are the safest state in the country,’’ said the former Marine, whose grandfather was mayor of Cambridge.

Now, the Republican says he feels even safer after legislators voted last week to overturn a ban on weapons in the State House and permit concealed weapons on the House floor and in the visitors’ gallery.

The moves were bold symbolic statements on gun rights driven by a slate of new pro-gun Republicans in the New Hampshire House. In the aftermath of a shooting rampage in Arizona over the weekend that left a congresswoman in critical condition and six others dead, they have taken on a grim practicality for some lawmakers who say threats of violence have become a fact of elected office.

Republicans said the shootings underscored the need for self-protection.

“It hasn’t changed my view at all,’’ said Baldasaro, who added that the tragedy in Arizona might have been averted. “The shame is that not one person had a gun.’’

New Hampshire is now one of seven states that allow weapons in a capitol, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The vote to permit guns in the State House follows a sweep of office in November that left Republicans holding majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Only the governorship remains in Democratic control.

Governor John Lynch has no authority to override the decision, said his spokesman, Colin Manning. In Massachusetts, only law enforcement officials may carry guns in the State House.

New Hampshire Republican leaders said the push to permit weapons in the State House reflects a deeply entrenched belief in gun rights.

“It goes along with our tradition of supporting our constitutional right to keep and bear arms,’’ said Shawn Jasper, deputy majority leader in the House

Jasper said lifting the ban merely codified the practice of many legislators who have long carried concealed weapons into the State House and onto the floor, in violation of the rules. Moreover, he said, the move would not encourage violence.

“People with bad intent will still be able to get into the State House, which is a very open place,’’ he said, noting that several doors are not covered by security officials and none are monitored by surveillance cameras. New Hampshire’s capitol is one of 23 in the country that have no metal detectors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Democrats, who opposed the move, say restricting guns in the State House made sense.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable in a chamber like the House, in this day and age, when rhetoric gets very heated,’’ said Terie Norelli, the Democratic minority leader.

Democrats also said they are concerned about the impact that gun sightings will have on the 27,000 fourth-graders who visit the State House annually as part of the New Hampshire history curriculum. “I don’t think the [guns] are appropriate for a learning environment,’’ said Stephen Shurtleff, a Democratic representative and former US marshal.

Weapons prohibitions in the gold-domed New Hampshire State House have been debated for years. Since 1971, weapons had been barred from the House chambers, Norelli said. In 1996, a Republican majority banned weapons from the capitol complex, including its legislative office building, and then lifted the ban in 2006, Norelli said. In 2009, the Democratic majority banned weapons from the complex after a group of gun-holding protesters shouted from the gallery after the defeat of a resolution promoting states’ rights.

Representative Henry A.L. Parkhurst, a Democrat, said at the rowdy hearing a man carrying a rifle had pointed his finger at him and mimed squeezing the trigger of a gun.

“So of course I am cautious,’’ he said. “I make sure I know how to duck and run.’’ But permitting weapons into the State House, he said, was not the answer.

“It’s not the place for them,’’ said Parkhurst, who was wearing a bolo tie, a common fashion in Arizona, yesterday in honor of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and those who lost their lives.

Around the State House and legislative offices, the lift of the weapons prohibition remained the subject of talk yesterday — with some legislators ribbing one another about whether they were “packing.’’ Others debated the finer points of the rule, such as what counts as a “weapon.’’

“Does this mean I can carry my machete?’’ Parkhurst said, prodding Baldasaro.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at