The good news for those officials is that as long as they follow state law, they have nothing to worry about. The bad news is that more local officials are apparently usurping their authority than you might think.
A bill on the move in New Hampshire would strengthen the state’s firearm preemption laws in two ways; first by explicitly prohibiting localities from imposing gun restrictions on municipally owned property, and then by adding a mechanism to enforce the state’s preemption law through the courts and executive branch. Under the proposal, municipalities that put local gun control restrictions in place can be sued by residents and ordered to pay up to $10,000 in damages, and the officials who imposed the ordinances could be removed from office by the state’s governor.
Under the bill, if a person believes a town has passed a firearm regulation in violation, that person may write a letter to the town saying so. Once receiving the letter, the town would have 90 days to remove the regulation using its local legislative process, without a chance to object.
If after 90 days, the town has not removed the regulation, the person is allowed to take the matter to Superior Court, where the bill will give the person automatic standing. The court could issue a fine to the town ranging from $500 to $5,000, depending on whether the violation was “inadvertent” or was committed “purposefully,” “knowingly,” “recklessly,” or “as the result of gross negligence.”
If the person suing the town is a resident, the court shall award them $10,000 in liquidated damages, in addition to their attorney’s fees.
And if a court finds that an official has violated the new law, its ruling could allow the governor to forcibly remove the official from office, under the legislation.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because lawmakers in Florida put a similar “preemption with teeth” measure in place a few years ago (the state Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to the law by Democratic Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried).
As I said, as long as officials actually abide by the law they have nothing to worry about. In fact they have three months to remove any ordinance that’s in violation of state law before a resident can sue over the violation. Frankly, the only officials likely to run afoul of this law are the ones who don’t give a damn about following it in the first place, though I will admit that not everyone sees it that way.
Cordell Johnston, the government affairs counsel at the New Hampshire Municipal Association, sees the law in a darker light. To Johnston, the bill would close off the one area in which he says towns do have the authority to regulate firearms: their own property.
But the disciplinary measures and fines against town officials pose an even bigger problem, Johnston argued.
“Town selectmen are volunteers,” he said. “…With rare exceptions, they’re not legal experts. They’re not lawyers. And they’re not intimately familiar with the limits of town authority. And so towns inadvertently pass ordinances all the time that may not be within their authority.”
Look, I don’t think it’s too much to ask of our elected officials that they know the limits of their authority. But even assuming Johnston is right and there are lots of well meaning but legally ignorant officials on the job in New Hampshire, the proposed law still gives them ample opportunity to fix their inadvertent mistake without being sanctioned.
But this law would also be pretty clear and hard to misinterpret. If you’re a town selectman, you don’t have the authority to regulate firearms. Period. That’s left up to the state legislature, not the scores of local boards across the state. Instead of a patchwork quilt of gun laws that might change depending on what side of the street you’re standing, there’ll be a uniform set of laws for all to follow.
Honestly, if there are selectmen who are currently serving who can’t understand how this law would work, they’re probably not competent enough to tie their own shoes, much less set policy for their community. The real objection here isn’t about the complexity of the law or the ignorance of officials but the loss of power that those officials would “suffer” if the bill becomes law.
HB 307 has already passed the state House and a key Senate committee, and should move to the Senate floor after the new year. If gun owners in the state continue to stay active and engaged they could very well start 2022 in spectacular form by putting some teeth into the state’s firearm preemption law and making the right to keep and bear arms even stronger and more secure in the Live Free or Die state.