EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 19, 2012

Salem seeks to repeal Town Hall gun ban

Town Hall policy violates state law

By Doug Ireland

---- — SALEM — While news of the fatal shooting of 26 people at a Connecticut school Friday has raised concern across the country about tighter gun control laws, Salem is looking its repeal its firearms ban at Town Hall.

Human resources director Molly McKean has proposed eliminating a section of the town’s personnel policy that prohibits Salem municipal employees from bringing weapons into the building.

She presented her proposal to selectmen Monday night — only days after a former Kingston man shot his mother at their home in Newtown, Conn., before killing 20 children and six teachers and administrators at a nearby elementary school. He then killed himself.

The shootings stunned the nation, with many questioning why 20-year-old Adam Lanza would shoot and kill more than two dozen innocent people and wondering how the slaughter could have been prevented.

But McKean, who said she’s just trying to strengthen the town’s personnel policy, said the firearms ban violates a state law that allows people to carry firearms in public places. That includes the New Hampshire Statehouse.

“Especially with the timing, I begrudgingly propose this,” she told selectmen.

McKean, a lawyer hired as human resources director a year ago, said yesterday she included the ban in the town’s personnel policy, but was informed by a town employee several months ago that it conflicted with state law.

McKean said she believed it would be best to correct the oversight when updating the policy for 2013. She said the well-intended measure would never survive a legal challenge and later realized it wasn’t necessary anyway.

Provisions of the town policy that prohibit employee harassment would remain in effect, according to McKean and Town Manager Keith Hickey. That means an employee who walked into Town Hall wielding a gun would be subject to the harassment provision and face possible dismissal if found in violation, McKean said.

“This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be other recourse for employees who come to work carrying firearms,” she said.

A federal law forbids anyone from carrying a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school, McKean said. Town Hall happens to be in a “gun-free zone” because it is across the street from Salem High School.

“We would certainly fall within the federal zone,” she said.

A bill pending in the state Legislature seeks to eliminate that safety zone, she said.

No one on the board questioned the proposal to drop the year-old ban, which was endorsed by selectmen, along with other changes to the policy. A public hearing on the policy will be held in January before selectmen take a final vote.

Selectman Stephen Campbell said yesterday he supports elimination of the ban if it means the town is taking the necessary steps to comply with state law.

“If (employees) acted inappropriately, there would be other sections of the policy that would allow us to take appropriate action,” he said.

McKean said her research of New Hampshire communities revealed that only a handful of towns had such policies.

Sandown selectmen banned firearms from their Town Hall last year after a local resident walked into the building with a handgun stuck in her belt. A town employee became concerned even though the woman was there only to register a car.

Sandown Selectmen James Devine and Brenda Copp said they were only trying to do the right thing when they reinstated an old ordinance that allowed only law enforcement officers to carry a weapon in town buildings.

But the board dropped the ban after only two weeks after receiving a letter from Concord attorney Penny Dean, a representative for Gun Owners of New Hampshire.

Dean said she simply notified Sandown that its ban violated state law and she would take legal action, if necessary, to protect the public’s right to self-defense.

Dean said yesterday she hadn’t heard of Salem’s ban, but praised the town for deciding to repeal the measure.

“I think Salem is doing the right thing to comply with the law — it is unfortunate they didn’t understand it to begin with,” she said. “You have to follow the law. If you don’t like the law, you change the law.”

Dean said a tragedy such as what happened in Connecticut may have been prevented if teachers and school administrators had been allowed to carry firearms and been properly trained, calling America’s schools “anti-safe danger zones.”

“We must give our teachers and administrators the self-defense tools they need to do their job,” she said.