N.H. Schools Grapple With Concerns About Guns, Student Safety On Election Day

Aug 26, 2016

Updated 08/26/2016:

The New Hampshire Attorney General's Office issued a statement outlining their position on the legality of guns in schools when used as polling places.

Reporter Jason Moon joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to discuss the statement.

The statement from the Attorney General's Office in full:

"New Hampshire is an open carry state and weapons can be carried into many public places, including many polling places.  Voters should not be prevented from voting based on possession of a firearm.  There are no New Hampshire election laws that prohibit a voter from carrying a firearm into a polling place that is located at a school.  However, if a voter does not have a concealed carry permit and carries a firearm into the school while voting, that person may be violating federal law. 

Under the federal Gun Free School Zones Act as reenacted on September 30, 1996, guns are not allowed within 1,000 feet of public, parochial or private schools unless certain circumstances apply.  If the individual possessing the firearm is licensed by the State to possess the firearm and law enforcement authorities have verified that the person is qualified to receive the license, then that individual can carry a firearm onto school property.

The State of New Hampshire has no authority to enforce the federal Gun Free School Zones Act.  We will be speaking with moderators over the next few weeks regarding how to deal with polling places located at schools.  However, moderators should not be preventing individuals carrying firearms from voting. 

Individuals who may be concerned that a voter has violated federal law by bringing a firearm into the polling place should contact the appropriate federal authority such as the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Office of the United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire.  The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives may be reached at (800) 800-3855 and the Office of the United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire may be reached at (603) 225-1552."

The original post continues below:

When voters head to the polls for the state primary in a few weeks, many will be casting their ballots from inside a school building. But one school district east of Lake Winnipesaukee is rethinking whether a school building is the best place for a voting booth.

A few weeks ago, the Governor Wentworth Regional School District board found themselves wrestling with an issue that touched on gun rights, voting rights, and the safety of children.

Here’s Superintendent Kathy Cuddy-Egbert.

“The issue is parents being concerned because there is voting in the schools and there are people that come in that do have – and I’m sure they have licenses to carry – but they come into school with guns. And that bothers parents. We’ve checked attendance; the attendance is lower on those days.”

Two schools in the district, New Durham School and Effingham Elementary are currently used as polling places. And while the voting generally takes place in an area separated from the students, Cuddy-Egbert says some parents are worried someone could harm students.

But not everyone believes that’s a legitimate concern.

Barry Ellis, a local resident who attended the meeting, argued over it with board member Jack Widmer.

[BE] “I don’t know of a single incident of a voter showing up at a school with a firearm and causing a safety concern.”

[JW] “Not yet. Not yet.”

[BE] “Well there’s a lot of ‘not-yets’.”

[JW] “Talk to the parents at Newtown, Connecticut.”

[BE] “I carry a firearm for my safety and for anyone else who may need it.”

[JW] “And if you carried it into our building, you wouldn’t be allowed in our building.”

Ultimately, the board voted 5-4 to allow the voting in the schools to continue, but also to give students the day off.

Board member Ernest Brown, who voted against the motion, says he felt the decision was rushed.

“If there was community concern, I would like to get the issue out in the newspaper and see what we get for feedback from the community. But instead we made a decision, bang, just like that. And that’s why four people voted against it, I believe.”

But the issue goes beyond student safety concerns. There’s also the legal question of whether guns are allowed in schools when they are used as a polling place.

It’s a question the state Attorney General’s Office says it doesn’t yet have an answer to.

The main law in question is the Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990, a federal law which prohibits firearms from coming within 1000 feet of all schools. There are exceptions to that law, like when a state has licensed the person carrying the firearm.

But it’s unclear how that exception would apply in a state like New Hampshire where residents aren’t required to have a license to open-carry.

Another question is whether the use of the school as a polling place might temporarily change its legal status relative to the Gun Free School Zone Act. Put voting booths in the high school gym and then maybe it’s not technically part of the high school.

In other words, it’s complicated.

Other states have taken various approaches to addressing this issue. Some have laws that ban firearms at polling places; almost 40 states have laws that ban guns at schools. Three states have laws that close schools on Election Day.

But New Hampshire has taken no such action. And that leaves local school boards like the Governor Wentworth Regional School district to parse the issue on their own.

Board member Jack Widmer says that was a challenge he could have gone without.

“I’ve been on the school board for 23 years now. And 23 years ago, I never would’ve thought we’d have a conversation like this. But a lot of things have changed over the years.”

More than 100 schools across the state will be used as polling places this September. That’s about a third of all polling places in New Hampshire.