Speaking at a virtual press conference on Thursday, Strafford County Sheriff Mark Brave urges the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office to issue guidance for a new law restricting state and local law police from enforcing federal firearms laws. (Screenshot)
This story was updated on July 14 at 5:06 to include interim guidance from the Attorney General’s Office over how to interpret House Bill 1178, which the office said was sent to state, county and local law enforcement offices Thursday morning. The headline was also updated.
A trio of New Hampshire county sheriffs urged the state’s Department of Justice to issue guidance on a new state law barring state enforcement of federal firearms laws Thursday, such as the Gun-Free School Zones Act.
In a letter co-written with Democratic legislative leaders Thursday, Strafford County Sheriff Mark Brave and Merrimack County Sheriff David Croft say guidance is necessary to clarify how state and local law enforcement should interpret the new law. The two were joined by Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera and top Democratic legislative leaders at a press conference Thursday morning to voice the concerns that it could interfere with responses to potential active shooters.
But the letter and press conference provoked a frustrated response from the Attorney General’s Office Thursday, which called the public airing of the concerns “extremely irresponsible.”
A spokesman for the office, Michael Garrity, said the office was still finalizing its guidance to law enforcement agencies over how to comply with the law. But it issued a memo stating that the state law would not prevent school officials or law enforcement from taking action against someone deemed to be a threat on a school campus.
The law, House Bill 1178, prohibits state and local officials from enforcing federal firearms laws, agency rules, or executive orders unless those laws or rules also exist in state law. The law also bars officials from cooperating with federal agencies’ investigations or actions against people suspected of federal firearms violations, unless the person is suspected of committing other federal laws or crimes.
The new law took effect June 24, the day it was signed by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Brave and Croft say the law inhibits their ability to enforce the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which stops an unauthorized person from possessing a loaded firearm on school property, as well as federal laws prohibiting firearms possessions for people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. At the press conference Thursday, Brave said he could not think of any examples of the Gun-Free School Zones Act being used recently, but said it would be helpful to deter an active shooter situation.
In his memo to New Hampshire law enforcement, Attorney General John Formella said that the new law would not affect the ability to report people who appear suspicious or dangerous.
“The principle of ‘see something, say something’ remains a critical component of protecting public safety in our communities, especially in our New Hampshire schools,” Formella wrote Thursday. “Local and state law enforcement officers are empowered to respond to, investigate, and take action with respect to any potential threat to schools pursuant to their authority under the New Hampshire Criminal Code. The passage of HB 1178 does not alter this. If any individual feels threatened or believes that a crime has occurred or is about to occur on school property, with or without a firearm, that person should immediately contact law enforcement by dialing 911, immediately notifying a law enforcement officer, and/or activating their local emergency operations plan.”
The sheriffs have asked for guidance on how school resource officers and departments should respond to an armed person on campus who appears to be a threat but is not breaking state laws. They asked if school administrators and staff, as well as local police officers, might be sued if they take action when there’s a gun on school grounds. And they asked whether the state will “be eligible to accept federal funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,” the firearms regulations package signed by President Joe Biden in June.
The letter also made comparisons to Missouri, where a new law goes further than New Hampshire by preventing federal agents and state officials from enforcing firearms laws. That law is being challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice; the sheriffs asked whether the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office was concerned about the legality.
“This new law appears to disempower our law enforcement from taking action to prevent firearm tragedies at school, and places our public school educators and staff in the unimaginable position of choosing whether or not to violate state law to protect their students should an individual with a firearm enter the school,” the letter states.
House Democratic Leader David Cote, of Nashua, Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, and Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat and candidate for governor, also signed the letter.
Brave, during Thursday’s press conference, noted that the Strafford County Sheriff’s Office has numerous partnerships with the U.S. Marshals, the FBI, the DEA, and the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Program, in which the office assigns sheriff’s deputies to work with each agency. While the new prohibitions do not affect all of those collaborations, Brave said he wanted more clarity.
“To me there’s still a little bit of gray area, and I’d like to know what direction we’re going in,” he said.
Formella told the Executive Council on June 28 that he believes the new state law is constitutional. He added at that meeting that the department plans to release guidance to law enforcement on how they should cooperate with federal agents under the law moving forward.
“I do believe though that we need to provide guidance to state and local agencies on how to implement this, which we will be working on putting out,” he said then.
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