Splaine: Courageous local legislators led fight for gun safety 20, 30 years ago

·4 min read
Jim Splaine
Jim Splaine

Guns, what kind, what power, and whether to allow concealed or open carry of such?  And how can our government regulate, limit, and improve safety of guns that protect citizens, yet preserve rights of ownership? 

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution isn't precisely clear:  "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Within that 27-word sentence, there's room for interpretation.  "Well regulated," "Militia," "security," "State," "right of the people," "keep and bear," "Arms," "infringed."  Legal scholars, historians, politicians, courts and judges make livings debating those words.  So do lobbyists.

Let's just take one word: "Arms."  What arms? To protect our home, can we put a cannon on our porch? How about having grenades? A machine gun pointing out a window would sure deter criminals. Why stop there? "Arms" can be interpreted in many ways, and the Second Amendment doesn't explain much. And what's this about "a well regulated Militia?"

The Second Amendment was ratified Dec. 15, 1791.  A cartoon that caught my eye depicted a 1790s-era Militia man with his one-shot rifle, re-loading a second bullet saying — to paraphrase — "Just stand there until I reload." That hits home the framers of our Constitution didn't visualize assault weapons.

During the past 30-plus years, courageous local state legislators have taken a lead to bring definition to that question of "arms." Their determination, and that of many current legislators, gives us hope.

In 1990, a young legislator from Dover, Gary Gilmore, introduced House Bill 1267, "relative to assault weapons." It proposed sweeping safety reforms including prohibiting the sale or possession of assault weapons and created a registration process for guns.

The six-hour public hearing filled Representatives Hall, which holds over 400 people.  In recommending the bill be killed, the House Public Protection and Veterans Affairs Committee identified it as "LARK — Legislation - Application - Registration - Konfiscation."

Rep. Gilmore was verbally threatened several times during the weeks-long discussion on the bill, including at a public hearing when he was carrying his 2-month-old son. The House voted to kill it 271-72.  Seacoast House members supporting Gilmore's effort included Amanda Merrill of Dover, Katherine Wheeler of Durham, Beverly Hollingworth of Hampton, Cecelia Kane, MaryAnn Blanchard, Michael Weddle, Juanita Bell and John Splaine of Portsmouth (my dad).

A decade later in 2001, then-Rep. Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth, who would later serve as state senator, introduced HB 736, "establishing the Consumer Safety Firearms Protection Act." Sen. Burt Cohen of New Castle was the primary sponsor in the Senate.  Among significant reforms it provided for strict procedures for sale or transfer of firearms and assault weapons and required a minimum age of 21 to obtain a license to carry.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held an hours-long public hearing, and hundreds of phone calls and letters were made to legislators by gun owners and advocates.  The House voted 324 opposed, and 35 in favor.  Locally those supporting the Fuller-Clark/Cohen bill were Marjorie Smith of Durham, and MaryAnn Blanchard, Terie Norelli, Laura Pantelakos, and me.

Time puts issues into perspective. Courageous legislators tried to do something about guns 20 and 30 years ago. There were fewer guns then than now.

In another 20 or 30 years, there will be more guns than now.  Will we be writing about other efforts being stonewalled by gun manufacturers getting rich selling more of their product?

Or will we mature as a nation and a people, and realize we can have a future that doesn't kill so many of us?

Today's quote:  "Whenever there is a school shooting, I think of my conversation with Joe Hoag, whose 16-year-old daughter Barbara was murdered on June 16, 1989, along with the ice cream shop owner where she worked, by her 18-year-old ex-boyfriend who had spent his life savings on an assault rifle. Barbera was shot seven or eight times.  Joe said he couldn't have identified her body if he hadn't recognized the clothes she was wearing.  My heart goes out to those parents in Stony Brook and Uvalde in that same situation." — Gary Gilmore, former New Hampshire state representative, Dover.

Next time: The two Portsmouths.

Jim Splaine has served variously since 1969 as Portsmouth assistant mayor, Police Commission member, and School Board member, as well as New Hampshire state senator and representative.  He can be reached at jimsplaineportsmouth@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Splaine: Courageous local legislators fought for gun safety years ago