Portsmouth threat sparks call for NH laws, banning guns at schools 

Gun Rights

PORTSMOUTH — As Moms Demand Action leaders across New Hampshire go to Concord Wednesday for the group’s annual Advocacy Day at the Statehouse, the local chapter leader is fighting for gun violence prevention legislation after a recent threat shook her community

Kathleen Slover, a Portsmouth resident and leader of the Seacoast area Moms Demand Action, is the mother of a Portsmouth High School student. Portsmouth’s schools were closed April 13 as police sought a suspect.

Later that day, 25-year-old Kyle Hendrickson was arrested in Portland, Maine. He allegedly had an AR-15 rifle, a shotgun, camouflage body armor, a handgun holster, a red-dot sight, and numerous rounds of ammunition in his vehicle and recorded a Snapchat video on Portsmouth High School grounds stating “Imma gonna shoot up the school.” Hendrickson is charged with criminal threatening with a firearm, a New Hampshire Class B felony, and also faces a federal charge of “transmitting in interstate commerce a threat to injure the person of another,” according to Jane Young, U.S. attorney for New Hampshire.

School reopened the next day, but feelings of fear and unease have lingered, and questions on New Hampshire gun laws have been raised in the community.

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“The overall feeling in my circle was that it’s nice to have a day off, but the kids didn’t want to think about the reasons why,” Slover said. “The parents in my circle, on a personal level, are grateful we live in a safe community and have a great police department. The reality of how close we got, though, is still sinking in, and it stuns you into silence.”

On Wednesday, Moms Demand Action leaders will meet with legislators and plead for a law banning firearms on school property in New Hampshire, bringing the state in line with federal law. 

“What we’re really looking for is a 100% no guns at all on school property (law), except for school resource officers and police,” Slover said. “If you’re over 18 and you’re not a student, as of now, you can go onto school property with a gun. We want to close the loophole on that.”

A few years ago, when collecting signatures from community members in support of gun violence prevention measures, Slover was shocked to learn how many citizens were unaware of New Hampshire’s current law on firearm possession in school zones. In the wake of Hendrickson’s arrest, that question has been magnified.

“When we go out and do our advocacy, we’re doing it not as a Republican, not as a Democrat, not even as a mom, we’re doing it as a community member. It’s a nonpartisan problem and it needs to be solved that way,” Slover said of gun violence. “We need to work together. Everyone has to make a stink and say these laws have to make us accountable for safety in our communities. It really is a problem for everybody.”

Community members are also questioning how Hendrickson, who has a lengthy arrest record, obtained the firearms. New Hampshire does have a law RSA 159:3 barring some felons from owning firearms and other weapons. A search of New Hampshire Superior Court records found no felony convictions for Hendrickson in the state.

Hendrickson was charged with five felonies for second-degree assault following a December 2020 car crash in Rochester that injured five people. According to court records, Hendrickson negotiated a plea deal and pleaded guilty on April 22, 2022, to five counts of vehicular assault, which are misdemeanors. The felony-level charges were dropped.

A spokesperson for Young said the U.S. attorney cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.

Somersworth police arrested Hendrickson on Feb. 12, 2020, on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest or detention and carrying or selling a weapon (brass knuckles). He also previously faced 16 juvenile charges in Berwick, Maine.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, New Hampshire has no laws barring firearm purchase or possession by people convicted of violent misdemeanors, people with diagnosed mental illness, people convicted of drug and alcohol misdemeanors, nor juvenile offenders.

What does federal law say about firearms in school zones?

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named in honor of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who survived a shooting in 2011, publishes information on federal and individual state gun laws.

Signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990, the Gun-Free School Zones Act prohibits individuals from knowingly possessing a firearm in a school zone, according to the U.S. Department of Justice

The Giffords Law Center states a school zone is defined as in, or on the grounds of, a public, parochial or private school that provides elementary or secondary education, or within 1,000 feet from the grounds of such a setting. The federal law doesn’t apply to people authorized by a state or locality to possess a gun, and firearms can be possessed if they’re unloaded and locked away, or if they’re being possessed for a school-approved program. 

What do New Hampshire laws say about firearms in school zones?

New Hampshire has no law on the books barring people who are not students from possessing a firearm in a school zone. 

“Any pupil who brings or possesses a firearm – concealed or otherwise – in a safe school zone (any school property or school bus) without written authorization from the superintendent shall be expelled from school by the local school board for at least 12 months,” the center says, citing New Hampshire state law.

“As you can see, New Hampshire’s laws could be stronger regarding guns on school property,” center spokesperson Mary Yatrousis said. 

What was NH House Bill 1178? How does it pertain to federal gun laws?

In June 2022, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law a bill that drew strong backlash from proponents of stronger gun laws. The legislation, House Bill 1178, prevents the state from enforcing any federal statute, regulation, or presidential executive order that restricts or regulates the right of the people to keep and bear arms.

The state attorney general’s office notes an exception: New Hampshire law enforcement officers can cooperate with or assist federal investigations “as long as the criminal investigation is not solely one concerning violations of federal firearms law.” 

“For law enforcement, this means that state and local officers are barred from charging individuals in federal court solely with firearms violations unless authorized by both state and federal laws,” the office wrote in an explanation of the law

The law does not prevent New Hampshire local and state law enforcement from sharing or reporting information with federal authorities, the attorney general’s office added.

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Multiple NH gun violence prevention bills have been killed

A handful of firearm bills proposed in the New Hampshire House of Representatives this year were voted “inexpedient to legislate” by lawmakers, effectively removing them from consideration. Many bills come down to largely party-line votes, and Republicans hold a majority in the state House and Senate.

House Bill 32 would have made it a Class B misdemeanor to possess or discharge a firearm in a safe school zone, followed by a Class A misdemeanor for a second offense and a Class B felony for a third and subsequent offense. House Bill 59 would have required background checks before any commercial firearm sale, while House Bill 76 would have implemented a three-day waiting period between the purchase and delivery of a firearm. 

House Bill 106 would have established “a procedure for issuing extreme risk protection orders to protect against persons who pose an immediate risk of harm to themselves or others.” Commonly known as a “red flag” law, the bill would have allowed “family or household members or law enforcement officers to petition for a court order.” Proponents of red flag laws argue they reduce the risk of death by suicide and mass shooting events. 

State Sen. Debra Altschiller, a Democrat from Stratham representing District 24, was a prime sponsor of House Bill 59 and House Bill 106.

“Genuinely I would like to see a bipartisan approach to gun violence prevention,” she said. “Wanting to keep your community safe is not mutually exclusive to one individual party. Unfortunately, we have a gun industry that has a hold on one particular party.”

State Rep. David Meuse, a Democrat from Portsmouth, was a prime sponsor of House Bill 76 as well as House Bill 78, which would have repealed the former House Bill 1178 signed by Sununu. The bill was also deemed inexpedient to legislate. 

Meuse believes the state’s approach to gun violence prevention should be similar to health care. “We can’t prevent diseases outright, but we can take steps to reduce the risk of having them happen.

“We’re in a situation now where we’re literally doing nothing,” he added. “It’s just extremely frustrating to see New Hampshire doing nothing.”

But is the tide turning? The third-term legislator feels while gun violence prevention bills haven’t gained traction this legislative session, more lawmakers are coming around to the idea of taking steps to stop potential firearm violence before it happens.

“We’re really at a crossroads, and I don’t think it’s enough to say that we don’t need to pay attention to these things or say that these things won’t happen here,” Meuse said. “These things can happen anywhere. They happen in red states, they happen in blue states. They happen in states with tougher gun laws and larger populations. I think it’s incumbent on all of us to take steps to do what we can to reduce the levels of risk.”

Altschiller is also a prime sponsor for Senate Bill 244, which centers around false public alarms. The bill mandates that a Class B felony be handed down to anyone who knowingly makes a false report of an active shooter, an explosive device or the presence of a biological or chemical substance within a school, business, office building, hospital or other public facility, rather than a misdemeanor. The bill has been supported by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. 

Such incidents are known as swatting and often draw large law enforcement responses, in addition to disrupting local hospital operations. In December, several New Hampshire public school districts, including Dover and Portsmouth, went into lockdown upon a false report of an active shooter.

Why gun violence prevention bills were cast aside is inexplicable to Altschiller.

“It’s absolutely mind-boggling to me. The citizens of New Hampshire have repeatedly said that they support things like background checks and extreme risk protection orders and waiting periods,” she said. “When someone is in crisis and they have the opportunity to go buy a firearm and all the ammunition they want, they are able to do damage to themselves or to others really, really quickly.”

Gov. Sununu tells federal government to ‘shove it’ on gun restrictions, touts school safety record

Sununu spoke at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on April 14, one day after Portsmouth schools were closed due to the recent threat. He referenced his signing of House Bill 1178. 

The governor, who is exploring a run for president, acknowledged school shootings in America are occurring “at an unprecedented level.”

“And every time there’s a mass shooting, every time there’s a tragedy, what does the left do? They blame you,” he told the crowd. “They blame politics. They make a political story out of it as opposed to saying, ‘What is the crux of these issues?’ We know the crux of these issues. It’s undiagnosed mental health. It’s a lack of opportunity in schools. It’s not supporting law enforcement. It’s not supporting (school resource officers) to start hardening the schools. All these things we do in New Hampshire. We don’t just sit back.”

Sununu pivoted to President Joe Biden taking executive action on guns in 2022. “So we quickly passed a law in New Hampshire that said, ‘You’re the federal government, we’re the states. We go first. Federal government, shove it. We’re not doing it.’“

Sununu also mentioned giving his “red veto pen” to a “red flag” extreme risk protection gun bill in 2020, which was sponsored by Altschiller.

In response to questions from Seacoastonline, Sununu released a statement saying, “New Hampshire has a proud tradition of responsible firearms stewardship, and I am proud that the Granite State is ranked the #1 state in America for public safety.” 

New Hampshire was named the safest state in the nation by Wisevoter due to having the lowest number of reported homicides in the country. 

“Unfortunately, there is no state or community that is immune from this crisis,” Sununu said.

The governor touted the state allocating millions of dollars toward improving school safety around the state, as well as forming a school safety task force comprising parents, teachers and law enforcement in March 2018, which later provided safety recommendations.

“When it comes to school safety and ensuring our kids learn in a safe environment, I’ll put my record against anyone,” he said.

In the school safety task force’s expansive report, a series of recommendations pertaining to state legislation, mental health, planning, training, emergency exercises, school communications and facility upgrades were made. Recommendations included forming study groups to examine background checks and extreme risk protection orders, expanding social and emotional learning programs in schools, increasing the number of available mental health resources, developing school building specific response plans for active shooter incidents, and establishing systems to keep parents, staff and non-first responders informed during incidents.

Portsmouth School Board chair: Add officers at every school

Nancy Clayburgh, chairperson of the nine-member city School Board, recently wrote a commentary proposing representatives of the school department, Portsmouth police and fire departments, and city leaders meet to discuss school safety strategies. 

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, the Portsmouth school district hired a consulting firm, which was tasked with assessing safety in the city’s schools.

In an interview last week, Clayburgh said it’s time to assess again.

“I think it’s time for us to bring back a consultant to look at our six schools and make recommendations,” she said.

School safety discussions that occurred years ago included talk of installing metal detectors in Portsmouth school entrances, a costly action that could have had “psychologically disturbing” effects on students, Clayburgh said. The high school has multiple entrances and more than 1,000 students, meaning several metal detectors would need to be installed or entrances reduced.

Past school leaders additionally considered bulletproof windows on the first floor of school buildings. Those measures would require School Board approval and additional funding.

Clayburgh believes the school district should consider stationing school resource officers at each city school, an idea also supported by Mayor Deaglan McEachern. At present, there are school resource officers at the middle and high schools, but none in Portsmouth’s three elementary schools or at Robert J. Lister Academy.

“I think this was very disturbing. It was very alarming for people,” Clayburgh said of the reaction to the school shooting threat. “It hit home, this really hit home. We could have had a major violent disaster at our high school, and I think that has affected people. I think that parents, staff and the community just want to know that our schools are as safe as they can be for our students.”

More local news: 110 Portsmouth employees earned $100,000 or more in 2022. Here’s list of all salaries.

Portsmouth Police Commission chairperson Stefany Shaheen has fielded calls from community members since Hendrickson’s arrest who have shared deep concerns about the threat.

The incident, she said, is a stark reminder Portsmouth is not immune.

“It’s important to understand how a person with the history this individual has was able to access the dangerous arsenal found in his vehicle,” she said. “Once again, I am struck by this outstanding and timely police work and incredibly grateful for the Portsmouth Police Department’s swift response. As we know and have seen in far too many other communities, this situation had the potential to be an absolute tragedy.”

Editor’s note: State Sen. Debra Altschiller is the wife of Howard Altschiller, executive editor of Seacoast Media Group.

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