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Tamworth selectmen nix gun policy

December 10, 2009
TAMWORTH — Selectmen have removed a controversial section in the town's personnel policy that critics said was illegally restricting town employees' gun rights.

The issue had been brewing since August when fire department officials and some residents maintained that the town was breaking state law with a policy that prohibits town employees from carrying guns at work without written permission from the selectmen. Critics said the policy was superceding state law RSA 159:26 that says the State of New Hampshire – not municipalities -- has the authority to regulate guns.

Selectmen's Chairman Tom Abugelis laid the issue to rest last week with a motion to remove the policy, which garnered the support of fellow board member John Roberts, who said he's in favor of removing the policy because he didn't feel selectmen had the authority to regulate gun rights.

Abugelis said the policy should be removed because it's legally ambiguous and exposes the town to liability. He said the issue falls in a "gray area" because it isn't clear if the town would be acting as an employer or as a municipality while trying to enforce the policy.

"No matter how many professional opinions you get you arrive back at the same point, which is that it's an area of application of the law that hasn't been tested as far as municipalities," said Abugelis. "I first thought it might be worth it on a principle level to fight for the clarification of this policy, but when I stood back and looked at the realism of the situation, I don't think under these economic conditions to engage Tamworth in the expense of battling this issue to clarify that gray area is realistic and it pains me to say that."

Abugelis said although he felt it was in the town's best interest to remove the policy, he personally believes firefighters and medics shouldn't carry weapons.

But Assistant Fire Chief Jim Bowles said the town would be exposed to liability if selectmen kept the policy and employees became the victim of a violent incident while at work.

"Employees could bring a lawsuit against the town for having a policy that restricts their ability to defend themselves," he said.

But Selectman Willie Farnum said the policy should stand. Farnum, who is a gun owner, wrote a prepared statement about his decision making process and shared it with the public. See Farnum's statement printed on page 8.

In the statement, Farnum explained that he ran into two strong points of view during his research into the matter. Some people said the town had no right to regulate firearm use by town employees. Others said selectmen have the right to limit employees' gun rights because they chose to work for the town. Farnum said he consulted a web site called FireFighterNation.com, which identified several problems with having armed firefighters. For example, firefighters and medics wouldn't be able to concentrate on patient care or firefighting if they are also concentrating on keeping their firearms secure, Farnum.

"The worst part of firefighters or medics going armed is the loss of public trust in staying on mission," said Farnum. "The first time that a medic or firefighter shoots a person, no mater how justified, the bad guys are going to assume that you all are armed, and that will put all fire and rescue personnel at risk."

Plus, firearms wouldn't do firefighters any good. Every firefighter or medic shot in the line of duty was caught in an ambush. Therefore, it's unlikely that a firefighter would be able to draw his weapon in time, said Farnum. He made a motion to add a sentence in the personnel policy in which selectmen would ask employees to refrain from carrying firearms while on town business.

The other board members said they would need more time to consider that issue and they decided to discuss it at their meeting next week.

Fire Ward David Bowles clarified the firefighters have no intention of drawing weapons while responding to calls. Some of the firefighters carry weapons in their daily lives and he didn't want them to get in trouble with selectmen if they come to the fire station armed while responding to an emergency call.

"We don't want people to think the fire department is a bunch of cowboys," said Bowles.

Meeting attendees seemed to agree with Abugelis that a positive aspect of the debate was that the town of Tamworth exercised a "great level of democracy."

"This is an example of a town operating with openness and responsibility out of care and concern," said Abugelis. "We're fortunate to be part of a town that pursues those (issues) that way."

Police Chief Dan Poirier got some laughs when he suggested everyone have a group hug.

In other news:

• Selectmen adopted a raffle regulation and application, which requires any organization that will be holding a raffle for charitable purposes to apply for a permit from the selectmen's office. The regulation and form is based on existing state law. The application must be completed 30 days before the raffle tickets are sold. Failure to obtain a permit could lead to misdemeanor charges for raffle organizers, said selectmen.

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