Why do legislators need guns in the State House?

The subject provokes so much passion that historical perspective is lost


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When I lived in Alaska in 2011, I read about the legislative decision to allow guns in the New Hampshire State House. The supporters of that idea described the Legislature as a target-rich environment. They have said disarming legislators turns the Legislature into a kill zone. One former legislator wrote to the Concord Monitor recently that, without guns, legislators were sitting ducks.

As someone who worked in and around the Legislature from the late 1990s to 2010, I have to wonder about the paranoia behind such views. I never felt the area around the State House was unsafe or any kind of danger zone. We are not talking violent, inner-city neighborhood or even scary dark alley -- Concord is downright safe.

To the best of my knowledge, in the 200-plus years of the New Hampshire Legislature, civility has been the general rule. So why the fear of being shot while doing the people’s business as a legislator?

The subject of guns provokes so much passion and so many inflammatory reactions that, unfortunately, historical perspective is lost.

The history of guns in America is surprising. However one interprets the Second Amendment to the Constitution, history shows that regulation of guns has always gone along with gun rights. Guns have been regulated since the start of our country. The founding fathers balanced gun owners’ rights with public safety needs.

In his writings, including his book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms,” UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler has stated, “The founding fathers instituted gun control laws so intrusive that no self-respecting member of the NRA board of directors would support them.”

Winkler describes the old Wild West as not so wild when it came to guns. He says that frontier towns usually barred anyone but law enforcement from carrying guns in public.

Typically, in frontier towns, gun owners had to check guns at stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff. In exchange, the gun owners received a metal token so they could retrieve their guns when leaving.

The famous shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., was about gun control. There was an ordinance in Tombstone prohibiting the carrying of deadly weapons. When Wyatt Earp confronted Tom McLaury, it was because McLaury had violated the town’s law about checking his gun. McLaury had failed to leave his gun at the sheriff’s office.

Winkler also shows how the National Rifle Association, up until the 1970s, used to be quite a moderate organization. Founded as a hunting and sporting association in 1871, the NRA supported many gun control measures, including the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1968 Gun Control Act.

It was not until the 1970s that the NRA started advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to carry a gun rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for common defense.

The hysterical overreaction to President Obama’s gun control proposals reflects a lack of historical awareness. One can argue about how effective the proposals will be, but the proposals are almost certainly constitutional. No constitutional amendment, including the Second, is beyond regulation. That has been well-established.

Consider laws that keep guns away from convicted felons and the mentally ill. Obama’s proposals are no different.

In addition, Obama is clearly within his constitutional authority to issue executive orders. As Winkler notes, presidents dating back to George Washington have issued executive orders.

As a judge, I am thankful for metal detectors and security guards. The Legislature has no metal detector screening, although most state capitols do. Maybe that is something to consider in New Hampshire, although it is a departure. It could help address the apparent insecurity some legislators feel.

Legislators making a big deal out of possessing guns in the State House, like it is some accomplishment, are grandstanding and acting macho. It is not doing something for constituents. Legislators should focus on the needs of the people – not guns on their person.

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is a federal administrative law judge. This column reflects only his views, not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.

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