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20 Years On, New Hampshire Statehouse Remains Wide Open

Since 9/11, it’s the only state Capitol in the Northeast without metal detectors and one of only eight nationwide that anyone can bring a gun into, whether the firearm is concealed or carried openly.

Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the Pentagon and a second hijacked jetliner bound for Washington, D.C. convinced government officials across the country to examine the security of their own public buildings.

Two decades later, the New Hampshire State House remains one of the most open and accessible in the nation.

It's the only state capitol in the Northeast without metal detectors and one of only eight nationwide that anyone can bring a gun into, whether the firearm is concealed or carried openly.

Many public officials from both major parties said keeping the welcome mat outside the country's oldest building at which a state legislative body still meets is a critical symbol of what makes New Hampshire unique on the political stage.

"We have always felt conscious about keeping the building as open as possible," said former House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, D- Concord.

In 1993, Shurtleff was deputy U.S. marshal here when terrorists drove a bomb-filled truck beneath the World Trade Center's North Tower.

After that attack, which killed six, Shurtleff said all federal courthouses were fortified and equipped with metal detectors, and public access was commonly restricted to certain floors.

Shurtleff retired on Jan 1, 2000, though he's now a contender to become President Joe Biden's pick to be the next U.S. marshal.

"With more and more gun violence and more attacks on government institutions, I hope public access never changes, but I could see things may need to be tightened up further," Shurtleff said.

New Hampshire has the lowest homicide rate in the nation and ranks second-lowest in violent crime behind Maine, according to independent analysis.

And in a state that for generations has seen future presidents crisscross its borders in search of first-in-the-nation primary votes, very few high-profile threats have been carried out against top government leaders.

Pre-9/11 Concerns

Even before 9/11, several events shook New Hampshire's bucolic sense of personal security.

— Nov. 2, 1993: John Albro, 37, a disgruntled taxpayer and son of a selectman, walked into the Newbury Town Hall and shot and killed two female employees there.

He died that night of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

— Aug. 19, 1997: Carl Drega, a Bow man in the midst of an escalating property dispute over his vacation home in Columbia, killed two state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor. After wounding four other officers, he was shot to death in a gunfight with police in Bloomfield, Vt.

— Oct. 10, 1998: A pipe bomb set off a small fire at the Concord City Library. A second device was found hours later at the state library across the street from the State House.

No one was injured in either incident. A federal grand jury was convened in the matter, but no one has ever been charged.

"We had a pretty good idea who it might be, but we couldn't gather enough evidence to make the case," Shurtleff recalled.

Security Force

Following the 2001 attacks, legislative leaders expanded and formalized an Office of Legislative Security, hiring several officers with experience as deputy sheriffs and police officers.

On the heels of the Tea Party's mid-term election victories of 2010, Mont Vernon conservative Bill O'Brien became speaker of the New Hampshire House.

With a 3-1 GOP majority in the Legislature, O'Brien, a dedicated Second Amendment advocate, moved quickly to end a four-decade ban of guns in Representatives Hall — the House chamber.

"I know it's a cliché, but if someone today wants to start getting reckless with a weapon, you have 30 or 40 legislators on the floor of the House who are armed. A well-armed society is a peaceful society," O'Brien said.

When voters gave Democrats control of the House, new Speaker Terie Norelli, D- Portsmouth, reimposed the ban on firearms.

Over 20 years under both Republican and Democratic control, the Legislature has flatly rejected deploying metal detectors in the complex.

After 9/11, the first House vote on the topic was 300-35 to kill the bill.

"I really don't think we need to go there, given what we now have in place for security," said Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper of Hudson, who replaced O'Brien as speaker.

When he took the gavel in December 2014, Jasper was stunned to learn that neither the State House or the Legislative Office Building across the street was under 24-hour manned surveillance.

"I tried to change that right away but couldn't get it done. I needed the Senate president's support because this was under the purview of the Joint Legislative Facilities Committee," Jasper said.

On July 16, 2016, Joseph Polito, a 25-year-old Gilmanton man with a history of mental illness entered the empty State House. Surveillance cameras showed Polito sneaked into the basement, leaving a small blood trail while trying to break into the ATM machine, Jasper said.

On the third floor, Polito took down and damaged two historic portraits.

Nothing was taken, but Polito was charged with felony burglary and criminal mischief.

"He went to (St. Cloud) Florida and bragged about what he'd done. Fortunately, the person he talked to was so offended he immediately called the New Hampshire State Police," Jasper said.

The case was dismissed after a circuit court judge declared Polito incompetent to stand trial.

Public Entrances Limited

After the break-in, a private company was hired to perform a security risk assessment of the complex.

Recommendations including ending public access through the back and side entrances to the State House and Legislative Office Building.

Now only legislators and staff with key cards can get in through those entrances.

"This still doesn't stop someone from coming in the front door and then letting someone into the back," Jasper said.

Several years ago, both buildings and the tunnel that connects them were equipped with surveillance cameras enabling security officers to monitor traffic throughout the day and night.

Another reform Jasper pursued as speaker was to have security officers carry firearms on the job.

"It made no sense to me we had only two state troopers protecting the governor who were armed, yet we could have any number of people inside the building with their own weapons," Jasper said.

O'Brien doesn't support many of the security measures.

"The public isn't full of people just waiting to make mayhem in the capitol," O'Brien said. "To me, political correctness drove a lot of these changes, and they aren't all for the good."

In polarizing times, Jasper said public officials face threats. Few are serious, he said.

One stalker of particular concern to Jasper repeatedly sent threatening emails blaming him for an adverse court decision.

"We knew he had a gun, and we felt at one point he didn't have anything to lose," Jasper said, but "he never did cross that line of confronting me."

After another woman made threatening phone calls in the middle of the night to Jasper's home, Manchester and Hudson police paid her a visit, warning the next one would result in criminal charges.

"That took care of it," Jasper said.

Shurtleff wonders whether the state capitol remains too much of a tempting "soft target."

" New Hampshire is changing like the country is changing. I still question the thought process of some people," Shurtleff said.

"What happened last Jan. 6 at the nation's capitol is something I never even thought about. Could that violent element come here?"

Jasper said he thinks the capital has struck the right balance.

"The reality is that bad actors are going to try to get to people if they want to," Jasper said.

"It's the price we pay for living in a free society and I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way."

(c)2021 The New Hampshire Union Leader. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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